In the past few months, we’ve seen the bounty that makes New Jersey the “Garden State.” At farmers markets and produce stands, its true colors have shone in fresh blueberries, cranberries, peaches and summer squash.
Less visible, however, are the millions of individuals that make it all possible — our smallest agricultural workers: the honeybees. Every spring and summer, members of the New Jersey Beekeepers Association maintain their hives around the state and some even move them to farms to pollinate the apples, blueberries, cranberries and other crops that fill our shelves with fresh produce. But what you might not know about are the tremendous survival challenges honeybees face.
In the past 20 years, beekeepers around the country have suffered unprecedented bee colony losses. New Jersey beekeepers sometimes lose more than half of their colonies in a given year, making each season a struggle to replace lost hives. Many causes are to blame, from a small parasite called the varroa mite introduced in the 1980s from Asia, to habitat loss, to climate change. But there is another driver of bee losses that the New Jersey Legislature can address right now by passing the “Save the Bees” bill: neonicotinoid insecticides, or “neonics.”
Huge loss of bee colonies
Neonics are neurotoxic insecticides first introduced in the mid-1990s that kill insects by attacking their nerve cells. They are now the most widely used insecticides in the country, frequently used on lawns, gardens and a variety of crops. Use of neonics exploded in the mid-2000s, coinciding with the steep increase in bee colony losses that doubled or tripled seemingly overnight. Massive yearly losses have become the new and troubling normal for many beekeepers. In 2020, beekeepers in New Jersey lost, on average, a whopping 51% of their colonies — one of the worst years on record.
Neonics are incredibly toxic to bees. But even when neonics don’t kill bees immediately, they can impair bees’ immune systems, grooming behaviors, memory, flight and more — making it harder for them to survive other threats like varroa mite, disease and habitat loss.
Neonic-driven bee losses threaten our ecosystems along with the bees and other insects that pollinate a huge variety of flowering plants, including important crops like apples, cranberries, blueberries, pumpkins and squash. In New Jersey, these pollinator-dependent crops are worth about $160 million each year. Rutgers research shows that many crops commonly grown in New Jersey are pollinator-limited, meaning a lack of bees and other pollinators is already lowering crop yields. Also at risk is New Jersey’s sweetest agricultural product — honey — worth roughly $7 million to state beekeepers annually.
Recent water testing from the Department of Environmental Protection shows how bad New Jersey’s neonic pollution problem is. It found neonics in over half of water samples statewide — strong evidence the chemicals broadly contaminate land and water — with most detections above federal benchmarks for harm to ecosystems. Local waters like the Raritan and Millstone rivers, and Bound Brook, have tested positive for high levels of neonics. Making matters worse, plants absorb neonics from the environment and become toxic themselves, including the pollen and nectar that bees need to survive.
Lawn and garden use
In New Jersey, addressing the heart of the neonic contamination problem means addressing lawn and garden uses. Professional pesticide applicators used about 30,000 pounds of neonics on lawns in 2016 alone — far exceeding all other known uses of these pesticides. Recent research also shows that neonics in treated ornamental plants harm bees even when gardeners treat at well below the maximum allowed rate.
The Save the Bees bill (A-2070/S-1016) would provide a solution that the state’s bees, beekeepers, and pollinator-dependent farms need. It would prohibit non-agricultural uses of neonics, like those on lawns, which cause serious contamination, but either aren’t needed at all or replaceable with safer alternatives. Importantly, the bill is narrowly targeted, exempting other non-agricultural neonic uses that pose less risk to bees, like treatments for invasive species, indoor uses and other uses to combat household pests.
If we want bees to continue pollinating our most important crops, putting food on our tables and supporting our agricultural economy, we must act to reverse widespread neonic contamination. If we do nothing, we may soon be the “Garden State” in name only, and that is why the New Jersey Assembly must move quickly to pass the Save the Bees bill.