Updating the birds and the bees

When I was young, sex education was known as talking about “the facts of life” or “the birds and the bees.” The metaphors might have been a little strange, but today’s birds-and-bees news is all about the facts of life. If we don’t do something — now — to protect the birds and the bees, the facts are that we could lose both their lives and our own.  

In 1962, Rachel Carson told a then-new story about birds and bees, but especially about birds, warning of a Silent Spring with birds and their songs killed by pesticides. The NRDC summarizes:

Silent Spring took Carson four years to complete. It meticulously described how DDT entered the food chain and accumulated in the fatty tissues of animals, including human beings, and caused cancer and genetic damage. A single application on a crop, she wrote, killed insects for weeks and months, and not only the targeted insects but countless more, and remained toxic in the environment even after it was diluted by rainwater. Carson concluded that DDT and other pesticides had irrevocably harmed birds and animals and had contaminated the entire world food supply. The book’s most haunting and famous chapter, ‘A Fable for Tomorrow,’ depicted a nameless American town where all life — from fish to birds to apple blossoms to human children — had been ‘silenced’ by the insidious effects of DDT.”

Carson’s crusading exposé sparked an environmental movement that still continues.

Unfortunately, so do the killing effects of pesticides. Today, neonicotinoids are in the spotlight, with increasing evidence that they are killing bees.

Dupont and Velsicol chemical companies led the attacks on Rachel Carson’s book. Today, Syngenta defends neonicotinoids. Like the climate change deniers, the DDT and neonic defenders battle against the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence. The accumulation of scientific evidence against neonics grows like an avalanche, with regulation lagging far behind. The most recent analyses, reported in June by The Guardian, conclude:

“Billions of dollars’ worth of the potent and long-lasting neurotoxins are sold every year but regulations have failed to prevent the poisoning of almost all habitats, the international team of scientists concluded in the most detailed study yet. As a result, they say, creatures essential to global food production – from bees to earthworms – are likely to be suffering grave harm and the chemicals must be phased out.”

How widespread are the neonics? They are often used as seed coatings. When they are applied, they persist in plant tissues. MPR reported on a Friends of the Earth survey that found neonics in more than half of garden plants sold in 18 U.S. locations, including major chains such as Loew’s, WalMart and Home Depot.

BBC notes that scientists have been suspicious of the neonics since their introduction in the early 1990s, and that a scientific review of “over 800 peer reviewed papers that have been published in the past 20 years” concludes that neonics and fipronil harm not only bees but many other species:

“The pesticides accumulate in the soil and leach into water, and pose a significant problem for earthworms, freshwater snails, butterflies and birds.”

Back when I waited at the end of the farm driveway for the school bus and wondered what French kissing was, meadowlarks sang from the telephone lines. They were plentiful, back then. I haven’t heard one in years.

How many more birds and bees can we lose, and still maintain life on this planet?

7/12/2014: One more related article: Popular pesticides linked to drops in bird population (Smithsonian Magazine online) 

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