Do neonicotinoid insecticides harm pollinating insects?

Click here for my internet links regarding insecticides used to control EAB.

Note: Emamectin benzoate is the singular active ingredient that is appropriate for treatment of  medium and large ash trees in Linconln.  Emamectin benzoate is NOT a neonicotinoid insecticide.  A historical trend, however, has developed, that commercial synthetic insecticide preparations are toxic, generally, to all life!  Therefore a high knowledge and great care in the handling and use of insecticides is warranted.

While it is inappropriate (frankly, for legal reasons) for me to attempt an unequivocal proclamation on the matter as to which uses of pesticides are “safe” and “justifiable” and those which are not, since I have made such activity a part of my professional business practice, and because from time to time a customer will show an interest in the matter, some explanation of my attitude is warranted (besides, space is cheap on the internet!)

A practical metaphor comes to mind regarding the hazards of pesticides:  Synthetic chemicals have been a part of human existence for a dozen decades and they are not about to go away. The paint on an automobile is a good (non-pesticide) example.  This product is toxic to humans in its vaporized, airborne (undried) state.  This is why robots or humans with skin and respiratory protection apply paint in enclosed environments at automobile production and repair facilities.  You may note however that automobile paint is generally agreed to be innocuous once it has dried, and a similar principle applies to pesticides.

In the case of modern plant health care, the used airborne pesticides for spraying canopies of trees has greatly diminished in the past several decades.  This largely reduces the discussion of the impacts of pesticide use in arboriculture to applicator risks and mobility and persistence of pesticides within soil. My attitude is that treatment of trees and automobiles knowledgeably with synthetic compounds is, at minimum, a marginally acceptable practice.

Neonicotinoids were a chemical of choice to control EAB in the initial phases of the threat, and in a few instances still are for a few trees  which are too small to warrant drilling and injection. “Neonics” used globally in agriculture have been the subject of much discussion in the media as a potential link with fatality of bees on several continents in a phenomenon known as “colony collapse disorder” (CCD) and with wreaking havoc with pollinating insects generally.

Media sensationalism of the dangers of neonicotinoid insecticides abounds while the incidence of CCD has declined for the last decade.  This has caused some anquish among the beekeeping community since it has thwarted research regarding the still mysterious cause of the phenomenon.  View the pollinator links here for articles on this subject.  The media phenomenon of demonizing insecticides plays a role in the success of EAB treatments in communities like Lincoln since it and other nuanced factors act to delay public adoption of treatment of ash trees, leading to a too-late adoption of treatment and a subsequent heightened failure rate in protecting ash trees from EAB.

Lincolnites no longer have the luxury of taking the next few years to ponder the reliability of the treatment options, the difficulty of detecting this insidious insect, and the impact of irresponsible overuse of chemicals elsewhere on the planet before making a decision as to when to start protecting their trees.

If exposed to neonicitinoid insecticides, pollinators can be injured.  However please note, federal law strictly prohibits the use of neonics to control EAB in a manner which bring the chemical in contact with pollinating insects (and to non-target insects generally), and federal and state law require that for-hire applications of insecticides (and pesticides generally) be made by a licensed pesticide applicators.  Also, pollinating insects do not visit ash trees–ash trees are wind-pollinated. 

Although I suspect the same justifications can not be made regarding the agricultural use of neonics which precipitated the aformentioned media treatment of the subject, a discussion of the of the ethics of permitting the wide scale use of neonics on crops (and, as I have encountered in global stories, honey production sites!?!?) lies outside the scope of this writing. 

Persons who are concerned about pollinator death caused by insecticides applied in the landscape may consider directing publicity efforts upon the practice of grub killer applications, commonly and legally used in lawn spaces throughout the USA.  Imidicloprid (known as Merit and other tradenames), a neonicotinoid, is probably the most common insecticide used for this endeavor in the past several decades.  Lawn spaces which contain flowering weeds (dandelion, clover, violet) provide a direct path of uptake for pollinators.  Also, runoff from lawns can introduce pesticides to waterways at a greater rate than can occur when using insecticides systemically in trees.  In summary, it is irresponsible to hyperbolize the systemic application of neonics to ash trees to control EAB as a cause for pollinator injury.

I do not wish my above observations to be construed as justification for the general use of synthetic pesticides!  I and many others are wary of the continual increase in synthetic pesticide use globally and locally, agriculturally and in the landscape and home.  In all aspects of lawn and tree work, I use herbicides and insecticides minimally–perhaps even to a fault by commonplace “professional” standards.  If a customer with a west facing home and a specimen ash in the middle of their front lawn declines treatment of their tree, not because the systemic chemical placed within the tree will have any adverse affects on the environment, but because this and other pesticides are foolishly overused locally and globally by others, they will be acting with a philosophy for which I am sympathetic.

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