Earth News Journal 45: Birds & Pesticides, Repeated History

Those who remember Rachel Carson, a keen-eyed naturalist who altered the scope of American environmentalism in the 1960s, regard this woman with igniting a new campaign of ‘green thinking’ in the public sector. Her influential and highly-acclaimed Silent Spring rendered her audience as speechless as the birds that ceased to forage in the New England forests during the months of May and June.

Unfortunately, only a meager serving of young people today recall this woman and her vociferous attempts to rid the United States of such lethal pesticide paradigms. Though, her prophecy of fifty-some years may perhaps be overtaking the American people in a second ‘silent spring,’ so to speak: this time taking the form of a recently-popular, widely-dispersed class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids.

These neonics first appeared in the American media last fall and generated quite the buzz, charged with the disappearance of bees and other pollinators. Even the unenthusiastic science reader has heard of the recent bee crisis: thousands of bees and other pollinators have seemingly disappeared from their hives and flower hideaways, leaving little evidence of their current whereabouts (including an insecticidal corpse).

“Over the last decade, there have been a number of mass die-offs of bees in several European countries,” said David Gibbons, head of the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science. “Clouds of [contaminated] dust contain very high concentrations of neonicotinoids and are instantly lethal to bees.”

To make matters more severe, a recent study published in the journal Nature examines the possible relationship between neonics and the decline of 14 bird species found in the Netherlands, a historical parallel to Carson’s documented bird disappearances in the late 1960s.

Not unlike traditional pesticides, neonicotinoids come packaged as a pre-coating on all of the specially-designed seeds farmers can procure for, in theory, a bountiful harvest. However, this neonicotinoids fad may be rearing its ugly head in the environment, devastating entire ecosystems and upsetting populations of several key species instead of merely regulating unwanted pests.

Because the entire seed is basically a loaded pesticide, the mature plant becomes much like a poisonous snare – lethal to all who eat of it. That means it’s toxic to those pesky flies and maggots the farmers are targeting, but also to the pollinators who aid the growth of the entire harvest.

The Nature paper points to two dangerous outcomes of neonicotinoid contamination: ingestion and eliminated food sources. Despite the fact that neonics have been deemed “safer for mammals and birds than for insects,” ingesting the insecticide is still lethal, if acquired in high enough doses. Also, for every grasshopper, caterpillar, and fly who feast upon the neonic-ed plant, the less food available for the bird species in search of a snack.

Nevertheless, the paper has proven a correlation between “high concentrations of neonicotinoids and declining bird populations,” not a a causation.

Bayer CropScience is just one primary manufacturer of the insecticide that remains adamant of neonicotinoids and their relative safety to the environment. Though, neonicotinoids use is now “so widespread – nearly 40 percent of the global insecticide market – that there are valid reasons to be worried,” Gibbons added.


Having studied Rachel Carson and the infamous pesticide-bird tragedy of the sixties, I am fully aware of pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides – and their horrendous effects on the environment if such manmade exterminators are not carefully regulated. Though I was in for quite a rude awakening when presenting to my fellow peers that of my final project – nearly every single one of my classmates had not heard head-nor-tail of Carson and her commendable actions regarding the regulation of DDT and other classes of organophosphates. How can the United States expect to progress in an era of environmental precaution if its youth have not been educated about man’s past mistakes in regards to his upkeep of Mother Earth? I was astounded, truly shocked. Was I the only one who had empathy for the environment in this collection of thirty individuals? Certainly, I would hope not. In order to prevent the widespread mis-use of the insecticide class of neonicotinoids (and ultimately turn another spring silent), I believe the fundamental importance of the environment should be focused on in schools across the country. By educating the young (and old) about the harmonious workings of the environment and the many adverse effects of manmade contaminates, like pesticides, fungicides, and insecticides, on that balanced circle of life, we can hope for a more prosperous Earth – without the fear of destroying her many species from the inside out. But it starts with communication, education, and conversation. If man is ignorant of his actions, how can he be expected to improve upon the present condition? A grassroots effort to ‘Save the Earth’ is vital for the protection of our planet. 

Bittel, Jason. “Second Silent Spring? Bird Declines Linked to Popular Pesticides.” National Geographic. N.p., 9 July 2014. Web. 13 July 2014.

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