The birds and the bees: new research implicates pollinator-toxic pesticides in hummingbird declines

by Jason Davidson, food and technology campaign associate

Bees aren’t the only important pollinators in peril. Found only in the Western Hemisphere, hummingbirds are vital pollinators and new research is beginning to uncover the serious danger these birds face from pesticides. A new study from a Canadian researcher published this summer found that the same pesticide contributing to bee declines is likely contributing to hummingbird declines too.

Population Decline; Pesticide Use a Key Culprit

Research indicates that hummingbird populations have been declining for decades. One species, the Rufous hummingbird, lost 62 percent of its population from 1966–2014. Habitat loss, climate change and fragmentation of breeding grounds are all factors contributing to the loss of these vital pollinators.

However, this summer, new research from Canada indicates that neonicotinoid insecticides, which have been implicated as a key factor in global bee decline, are contributing to hummingbird decline. Neonicotinoids (neonics) are widely used in both agriculture and in backyard gardens and landscapes. They are persistent, lasting in water and soil for months to years. They are also systemic, traveling throughout the entire plant, permeating everything from the roots to the leaves, pollen and nectar. Neonics are commonly used as seed treatments on over 140 crops and research shows they can also be found in garden plants.

This new study examined levels of neonicotinoid insecticides in hummingbirds and found the birds consume pesticides in their food sources. Similar to bees, hummingbirds remember where flowers are located and return to the same places for food. Researchers are concerned neonicotinoids will disrupt the memory of hummingbirds like they do with bees, which means it could make it difficult for hummingbirds to navigate and return to flowers for food.

Additional studies show neonicotinoids are extremely toxic to birds. American Bird Conservancy found that a single seed coated with imidacloprid (the most popular neonicotinoid) is enough to kill a songbird. The study also found even one tenth of a neonicotinoid-coated corn seed, digested daily during egg-laying season, is enough to affect reproduction.

Pollinator friendly garden plants that have been pre-treated with neonicotinoids pose a serious risk to hummingbirds because they are attracted to the vibrant and bright colors of flowers. While over 135 retailers such as Home Depot, Lowe’s, Walmart, True Value and Costco are shifting away from selling plants that have been pre-treated with neonicotinoids, it is still possible to purchase plants that contain these pesticides. Because neonicotinoids are so pervasive, even areas that have not been treated with neonicotinoids could be impacted because of their ability to spread. For example, a study conducted in South Dakota found that organic wildflower fields that were planted to provide refuge for pollinators were carrying neonic residue. This study illustrated neonicotinoids ability to leach and spread, inadvertently contaminating the environment and harming vital species including hummingbirds.

What you can do to protect hummingbirds

  1. Make your home pollinator friendly: Create a safe haven for hummingbirds and other pollinators in your backyard by planting native, pollinator-friendly flowers that are free of pollinator-toxic pesticides, including neonicotinoids. Make sure not to use any of these products in your backyard. You can view tips for creating a pollinator-friendly backyard here. Ask your neighbors to do the same. Provide shallow water sources that hummingbirds can use for a short respite before they continue their migration.
  2. Make your community safe for pollinators: Work with your community to pass a pollinator protection policy. This policy should expand pollinator friendly habitat free of pollinator-toxic pesticides and eliminate pollinator-toxic pesticides on city or town property. Get all of the steps to pass a policy in your community here.
  3. Urge Kroger to protect pollinators: Call the Kroger headquarters and tell them to stop selling food grown with bee-killing pesticides and to increase USDA certified organic food and beverages to 15 percent of overall offerings by 2025, prioritizing domestic, regional and local producers. Call Kroger today at: 1–866–221–4141
  4. Urge your members of Congress to protect pollinators: Tell your members of Congress to support legislation protecting pollinators. Urge your Representative to cosponsor the Saving America’s Pollinators Act here and your Senator to cosponsor the Pollinator Recovery Act here.