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Conference Report: “Neonics, the New DDT—What You Need to Know About the Pesticides Harming Connecticut’s Birds, Bees, Wildlife and People”

“Neonics, the NEW DDT” Conference Agenda

Introduction and Welcome. Joyce Leiz, Executive Director of the Connecticut Audubon Society

Neonics and Birds: A Match Made in Hell. E. Hardy Kern III, Director of Government Relations, Pesticides and Birds Campaign of the American Bird Conservancy

An Overview of Neonics and Associated Problems Including Ecosystem Disruptions and Natural Solutions. John Tooker, Professor and Extension Specialist in the Department of Entomology at The Pennsylvania State University.

Reduction of Neonics: the Québec Experience. Louis Robert, former agronomist and grain crop specialist for the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, Province of Québec.

The Toxic Truth: Emerging Science Linking Neonics to Human Health Harms. Kathleen Nolan, MD, MSL, pediatrician, president of the Physicians for Social Responsibility New York Chapter; Senior Research Director at Catskill Mountainkeeper.

Policy Solutions: State Action to Curb Overuse of Neonics. Ann Gadwah, Advocacy and Outreach Coordinator, Sierra Club Connecticut.

Panel: Water Contamination, Declines in Biodiversity & Where We Go from Here. Karen Beaulieu, US Geological Survey; Richard Harris, founder of Harbor Watch; Victor DeMasi, lepidopterist and affiliate of the Yale Peabody Museum; Dina Brewster, owner of The Hickories organic farm in Ridgefield, former CT NOFA director; and Burton DeMarche, LIC LEED AP, president of LaurelRock Landscaping.


Calling it the “new DDT,” scientists, educators, and environmentalists met at a conference at Trinity College in Hartford on March 11, 2024, to discuss the danger to humans and wildlife from neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide often used on crops, golf courses, lawns and gardens.

This conference report includes summaries of the presentations, links to the presenters’ slides, and a complete video of the conference.

“Neonics, the New DDT—What You Need to Know About the Pesticides Harming Connecticut’s Birds, Bees, Wildlife and People” was organized by Pollinator Pathway, Rivers Alliance, and the Connecticut Audubon Society, under the auspices of the Connecticut Coalition for Pesticide Reform.

The conference was aimed at educating environmental advocates, state residents, and government officials on how they can join forces to reduce the use of these pesticides in Connecticut. The ultimate goal is to persuade the Connecticut General Assembly to pass a bill strictly regulating the use of neonicotinoids, also known as neonics.

Joyce Leiz, executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society, opened the conference, telling the audience of 160 that the U.S. has experienced a decline of 3 billion birds since 1970. Potential causes include the increased use of pesticides in general and neonics in particular.

In Connecticut, neonics are used mainly on lawns and golf courses and, on a smaller scale, in agriculture.1 Corn, soybean and other seeds are coated with neonics to battle crop pests. As a coalition, Leiz said, we are very concerned about the impacts on bees, butterflies, and birds—one neonic-coated seed can be fatal to a songbird.

What follows is a summary of the presentations of the six speakers, and of the panel discussion. You can find the video below as well.

Slide Presentations

Hardy Kern

Louis Robert

John Tooker

Kathy Nolan

Karen Beaulieu

E. Hardy Kern, Director of Government Relations, Pesticides and Birds Campaign for the American Bird Conservancy

Hardy Kern titled his presentation “Neonics and Birds: A Match Made in Hell,” and reiterated the concern about the effects of neonics on birds. He presented and discussed data on the decline of bird populations, the impact of neonics, and how a decline in insects, a major food source for birds, can affect bird populations.

Studies show that life-threatening weight loss, decreased brood sizes, death, and convulsions are some of the ways birds are impacted by neonics. Many factors can play into the decline of birds, “but pesticide use has repeatedly been identified as one of the repeated threats,” he said. 

As bird populations have declined, two types have been hit harder than most: birds living in grassland habitats and those known as aerial insectivores, which grab bugs while airborne. Swallows, swifts, and flycatchers are among them. 2

As for solutions, Kern cited state advocacy as a key tool. Ten states including Connecticut prohibit the use of neonics except by a licensed professional.  “Here is where I’m really hopeful … the states are really stepping up.”

Kern also noted with optimism a current bill in Connecticut (SB 190) that seeks to strictly regulate the use of neonics.3 “The fact that it’s even on the table being discussed is already a monumental step,” he said, noting how New York State has already passed the Birds and Bees Protection Act into law. It phases out the use of neonics on corn, soy and wheat seeds by 2029, and bans its use on non-agricultural areas such as lawns, gardens and golf courses.

But what really gives Kern hope is the successful battle against the pesticide DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), which was banned in the U.S. in 1972 and is now banned globally after nearly driving to extinction the populations of Bald Eagles, Ospreys, Peregrine Falcons and other species in the U.S.

In fact, eagles have flourished, and they were taken off the U.S. Endangered Species list in 2007.

“We are now at the point where the battles I’m fighting legislatively on eagles are because they’re nesting too much on power lines so people are getting mad about it. That’s a great problem to have: there’s too many eagles and people need to make rules about it,” he said.  “And it only happened because of people in rooms like this. It only happened because we noticed, we applied science, and we used that to inform our laws and policies and because we didn’t give up.”

While grassland birds in the U.S. have declined by 34%, species like this Bobolink (photographer at UConn in Storrs by Frank Gallo) have fallen even more, by 50%, with another 50% decline expected over the next 50 years without an increase in conservation. Pesticides are among the causes.

John Tooker, Ph.D., Professor of Entomology, Director of Graduate Studies, Pennsylvania State University.

Professor Tooker provided the conference with an overview of neonics and the disruptions they cause to ecosystems.

He began his discussion with a chart illustrating the toxicity to honey bees of different types of neonics, which are nerve toxins. “They are very toxic to insects. They are among the most toxic insecticides that have ever been produced,” he said.

Tooker cited data from scientists in the Netherlands, where neonic use correlated with bird decline. “It is suggestive that neonics aren’t helping the bird populations,” he pointed out.

As for the U.S., Tooker referred to data compiled by researchers at the University of Illinois, showing sizable declines in bird populations in the Midwest, especially grassland birds that eat insects, in areas where neonics were used between 2008 and 2014 (data on coated seeds has not been collected since then and coated seeds are a primary source of neonics in agricultural areas).

“This is a direct relationship between neonics and birds. The folks used a statistical approach that allowed them to conclude a causation not just correlation in the influence of neonics on birds.”

Declines were less in Connecticut, where agriculture isn’t as big as in other parts of the country.

Farmers are under pressure to buy coated seeds. Sales representatives from seed companies visit 8 to 10 times a month. The way seeds are marketed, farmers have little choice and are forced to buy “pest management packages.”

Tooker recommended the use of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). But because neonic-coated seeds are used prophylactically, they make IPM impossible. “Neonics seed treatments are being used regardless of need,” he said. “They have this negative influence on beneficial insects, innocuous insects, and that includes natural enemies of pests, pollinators and decomposers.”

He used slugs as an example. Pennsylvania is a no-till state —more than 70% of the state’s farmers do not till their land.4 One result is that slugs are the most significant crop pests. Neonics don’t kill slugs but they do kill creatures that eat slugs, which means the neonics eliminate a natural form of slug control. As a result, farmers saw devastating slug population increases occur after the use of neonic-coated seed began.

Louis Robert, former agronomist and grain crop specialist for the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, Province of Québec.

Louis Robert provided an overview of pesticide and insecticide use on Quebec farms, as a typical example, and promoted the use of IPM.

He said that he thinks that singling out neonics for a ban would only lead to companies seeking out other insecticides and pesticides.

“From my point of view there is no such thing as essential pesticides,” said Robert, who works as a consulting agronomist on issues related to soil health, pesticides and fertilizer use, phosphorus losses to waterways, and ethics in agronomic research.

Like Tooker, Robert, too, said it was important for farmers to reduce pesticide use while increasing the biodiversity of their farmland via IPM, which includes using cover crops and crop rotation. Cover crops improve biodiversity which, in turn, helps keep crop pests in check.

He cited, for example, how planting soybeans directly into standing winter rye, which some farmers in Quebec are doing, can even eliminate the use of all pesticides. “Farmers, themselves, are the best advocate for biodiversity,” he said. 

Neonic-coated corn seeds are hot pink. This photo is from Kathleen Nolan’s conference presentation.

Kathleen Nolan, MD, Senior Research Director for Catskill Mountainkeeper

The impact to human health from neonics, meanwhile, was addressed by pediatrician Kathleen Nolan. In addition to her position at Catskill Mountainkeeper, she is president of the Physicians for Social Responsibility New York Chapter and co-founder of Concerned Health Professionals of New York.

She spoke on emerging science linking neonics to harm to human health, and began her discussion by showing the audience a photo of what seed sprayed with neonics looks like. In the image she showed, the seed was colored hot pink. (The Environmental Protection Agency requires seeds that are coated with any form of chemical or biological treatment to use a differentiating color to avoid the potential for those seeds to commingle with untreated seed.)

Neonics have made their way into both ground and surface water, Nolan said. She shared data from 2016, showing that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that half of Americans are exposed to neonics on any given day. Studies show that exposure to neonics has been linked to birth defects in the heart and brain, autism-like symptoms, decreased sperm and sperm quality, Nolan said.

To protect human health, recognizing patterns is key, she said, and shared a chart with the audience that outlined patterns such as the ecological impacts of neonics, including being lethal to many species.

“The animal studies are very troubling. The human studies are very troubling,” she said. “So why haven’t we gotten rid of it yet? I think the answer to that is partly that we need to have the increase in public attention. That is exactly what this conference is doing.”

As for the environment, neonics have begun to cause what she called “hollowing out of ecosystems.”

“Neonics have been used so much in the United States and around the world that we have what I would call natural experiments,” she said. “I’m very troubled and want farmers to be troubled by the impact of neonics on worms and other inhabitants of soil.”

Worms and other organisms in the soil, amphibians, reptiles, aquatic invertebrates and fish, small mammals such as mice, rats, and rabbits, and large mammals such as white-tailed deer have become experiments in the wild, Nolan said.

Barn Swallows are among the aerial insectivores whose populations have declined. Photo by Patrick Comins.

Ann Gadwah, Advocacy and Outreach Coordinator for the Sierra Club of Connecticut

Ann Gadwah briefed the conference on the importance of getting legislation passed to strictly curb the use of neonics in Connecticut. She praised New York State’s recently passed neonics law. “This is a huge win for the birds and the bees in New York. We really should strike here while the iron is hot,” she said.

She focused on the importance of passing SB 190, An Act Concerning the Use of Neonicotinoids. Note however that in the days following the conference, the Environment Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly did not allow SB 190 to be brought up for a committee vote. As of publication of this report, chances of passage in 2024 are remote.

Panel discussion: “Water Contamination, Declines in Biodiversity, and Where to Go from Here.” Karen Beaulieu, New England Water Science Center biologist for the US Geological Survey; Richard Harris, founder of Harbor Watch; Victor DeMasi, lepidopterist and affiliate of the Yale Peabody Museum; Dina Brewster, owner of The Hickories organic farm in Ridgefield, former CT NOFA director; and Burton DeMarche, LIC LEED AP, president of LaurelRock Landscaping.

Karen Beaulieu provided an overview of the neonic imidacloprid in Connecticut rivers from the results of two U.S. Geological Survey projects. Sixteen sites were part of a short-term study and two of them, the Connecticut River and Norwalk River, were tested as part of a long-term study. Over half the rivers tested contain neonics. The long-term findings for the Norwalk River and the Connecticut River show the presence of   imidacloprid at levels lethal to aquatic life.

Richard Harris provided data on species diversity and abundance that he and others collected as part of Harbor Watch’s Embayment Biological Study. The data showed a decrease in the number of crab species from 1990-2023.1  He is concerned this decline may be attributable to pesticide use during that period.

“If you think you used to see more butterflies — you did,” Victor DeMasi, lepidopterist and affiliate of the Yale Peabody Museum, said a the conference. Photo by Mary Gaudet-Wilson

Victor DeMasi, of Redding, provided an overview on the butterfly population there, where he has conducted counts for 40 years. He detailed butterfly specimens he has found on his property and described his involvement in the national Butterfly Association Fourth of July Butterfly Count.

DeMasi said there has been a decline in butterflies in Redding that is consistent with declines elsewhere.  “If you think you used to see more butterflies — you did,” he said.

Dina Brewster provided the audience with insight on operating an organic farm.

“Farmers are on the brink of extinction. We’re doing what we can to survive,” she said. “The real perpetrators of what’s going on are these huge, big chemical companies.”

She shared a picture of her chickens, which she credited with keeping pests under control for her blueberry bushes, instead of pesticides, while they simultaneously fertilize her land. She noted how biodiversity efforts on the property have been successful.

Burton DeMarche made the last presentation of the conference. His LaurelRock firm maintains 150 properties in Fairfield County. He said he wanted to provide insight into which neonics are being used by the landscape industry today, how they’re used, and the challenges the industry faces because of conflicting information.

“There are landscapers out there who believe there is a different way to do things,” he said.

His company uses a product called Merit, which contains the neonicotinoid imidacloprid. It’s used widely throughout the landscape industry. He said it’s effective against at least 12 different insects, including Japanese beetles, grubs (the larval stage of Japanese beetles and other insects), chinch bugs, and pill bugs. They typically apply it in July for grub control.

His firm also uses Merit on many ornamental plants, shrubs and trees to control 20 different insects, including emerald ash borer on northern white ash, wooly adelgid on eastern hemlock; aphids on viburnum, whitefly in azaleas, and psyllids on American boxwood. These are applied frequently in May, June or July as a spray or “drench” on leaves.5

He said Integrated Pest Management is based on inspection, and if the plants you’re concerned about don’t meet a certain threshold of infestation then you should not be applying the pesticide.

The landscaping industry responds to the demands of customers. “On high-end residential landscaping it’s usually not acceptable to just say, well we’re going to have to replace the lawn. That’s usually not something that a client will listen to.

“So we usually do a lot of Merit application as a preventative. If not we have to use an organophosphate called Dylox. The question is, which should we put down: the neonic or the organophosphate, because one way or another we’re going to put something down, most likely to cure the problem of grubs. So this is one of the conundrums being faced by landscape contractors in trying to please their clients.”

He said that a week before the conference he received a legislative alert from the Connecticut Nursery and Landscape Association about SB 190. He read from it: “As drafted, this bill could lead to the use of alternative products that are less effective and pose a greater risk to pollinators, the environment and the public. Simply put, the alternative non-neonicotinoid products are more deadly to pollinators.”

He said GrubEx is the most common alternative. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst says GrubEx is non toxic to bees and has very low toxicity to vertebrates. 6

DeMarche said, “Hearing a clear message would be very helpful to landscapers. What are we supposed to be doing?”

Now, based on what he’s heard from respected friends, he’s thinking maybe neonics aren’t the answer he thought it was.

“Ultimately, I think it really is a collaboration of the stakeholders: the policy makers, researchers, industry professionals, environmental advocates,” he said. “We need to develop some clear guidelines and alternative strategies that prioritize both pest control and pollinator protection and it’s essential for sustainable landscaping practices going forward.”

DeMarche said that over the past decade he’s seen more landowners choose organic lawn care; and more landowners are opting for meadows and pollinator gardens to replace lawns or to make their lawns smaller.


Joyce Leiz of Connecticut Audubon closed the conference.

The research clearly shows a correlation between neonicotinoid use and declining populations of birds, bees, butterflies and other pollinators.

“We’ve heard about the research, we’ve heard about the challenges that are faced by farmers, by organic farmers, as well as landscapers. There’s a lot of information that we can be sharing.

“We can’t wait for EPA. Their funding is too low for them to be doing reassessments or to be assessing new products. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, which is required to assess pesticides through the Endangered Species Act, is underfunded.

“Connecticut needs to take a stronger stand. The time to take action is now. Connecticut has the opportunity to join states such as New Jersey, Maine, and Nevada, and ban the use of neonics for non agricultural uses, or follow in the footsteps of New York and become another state that bans it in agricultural uses as well.”

Editor’s footnotes:

1. There are an estimated 245,000 acres of lawn, 231,000 acres of agricultural land, and 15,000 to 30,000 acres of golf course in Connecticut.
2. Connecticut Audubon explored the question in its 2013 Connecticut State of the Birds report, “The Seventh Habitat and the Decline of Our Aerial Insectivores.”
3. SB 190 was tabled by the General Assembly’s Environment Committee shortly after the conference. Its chances of being passed in 2024 are dim.
4. The no-till policy is part of a plan to reduce pollution, including the runoff of nitrogen fertilizers, in the Susquehanna River watershed, which drains into Chesapeake Bay.
5. Another safer alternative for hemlock trees is the ST beetles (Sasajiscymnus tsugae), which can be purchased from Tree-Savers ( These beetles have been USDA approved and have been tested and used by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. Results are not immediate. However, it is a sustainable option as the beetles multiply over time and future treatments probably won’t be necessary. 
Sprays of just water, or water plus soap like Castile soap, can be very successful for eliminating aphid infestations. This also works for whiteflies, making sure to thoroughly wet the underside of the leaf area. For either aphids or whiteflies, using water with a few drops of essential oil may be effective. Also available are sticky aphid/whitefly traps. Sometimes the use of several methods of defense, spraying plus sticky traps, may need to be used. As always, encouraging or even purchasing beneficial insects can be part of an IPM program. For psyllids, spraying with horticulture oil in spring is recommended. Beneficials such as lady beetles of lacewings will also help with psyllids.

6. GrubEx is the name for chlorantraniliprole, the version available to the public. This product for commercial applicators is called Acelypryn. Acelypryn was also cited by Dr. Richard Cowles of the Connecticut Agriculture Experiment Station, who said that neonics have become ineffective over time, apparently due to resistance developed by beetles. He recommends Acelypryn which needs to be applied only once every two years to control white grubs. Another product which is available is Btg (Bacillis thuringiensis gallerias), a bio-insecticide called Grub-Gone which has been shown to be effective and safe.

Report written by Lauren Borsa Curran.

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