Each year, millions of kilograms of insecticides are applied to crops in the US. While insecticide use supports food, fuel, and fiber production, it can also threaten non-target organisms, a concern underscored by mounting evidence of widespread decline of pollinator populations. Here, we integrate several public datasets to generate county-level annual estimates of total ‘bee toxic load’ (honey bee lethal doses) for insecticides applied in the US between 1997–2012, calculated separately for oral and contact toxicity. To explore the underlying components of the observed changes, we divide bee toxic load into extent (area treated) and intensity (application rate x potency). We show that while contact-based bee toxic load remained relatively steady, oral-based bee toxic load increased roughly 9-fold, with reductions in application rate outweighed by disproportionate increases in potency (toxicity/kg) and extent. This pattern varied markedly by region, with the greatest increase seen in Heartland (121-fold increase), likely driven by use of neonicotinoid seed treatments in corn and soybean. In this “potency paradox”, farmland in the central US has become more hazardous to bees despite lower volumes of insecticides applied, raising concerns about insect conservation and highlighting the importance of integrative approaches to pesticide use monitoring.
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