Pests invade Europe after neonicotinoids ban, with no benefit to bee health


This month, more than 100 natural food brands, including Clif Bar and Stonyfield, joined together in a drive to encourage the Obama Administration to ban pesticides linked to bee deaths. The culprit, they say, is neonicotinoids, which is a class of chemicals commonly called neonics, introduced in the 1990s, that are mostly coated onto seeds to help farmers control insects.

“(Neonicotinoids) poison the whole treated plant including the nectar and pollen that bees eat – and they are persistent, lasting months or even years in the plant, soil, and waterways.” writes Jennifer Sass, a scientist with the National Resources Defense Council, which has been pressing the  Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a one-year review of neonics to determine if a ban is necessary. “Traditional best management practices for bee protection, such as not spraying during the day or on bloom, doesn’t work for neonics.” she claims.

Last November, the NRDC submitted signatures from almost 275,000 of its members urging EPA to respond to its legal petition to expedite the review of neonics.

While there are a number of factors contributing to the dramatic die-off of bees – both honey bees and native bees – there is now a wealth of science that demonstrates that pesticides are a big part of the problem. In particular, the neonic pesticides (imidaclopridclothianidin, and others) have been linked to impaired bee health, making it more difficult for the colony to breed, to fight off disease and pathogens, and to survive winter.  What makes neonics so harmful to bees is that they are systemic — meaning they poison the whole treated plant including the nectar and pollen that bees eat — and they are persistent, lasting months or even years in the plant, soil, and waterways they contaminate. Traditional best management practices for bee protection, such as not spraying during the day or on bloom, doesn’t work for neonics.

Yet, as activists continue to campaign to get neonics banned, news from Europe, where a two-year moratorium went into effect last year, suggests that farmers are unable to control pests without them. Partly in desperation, they are replacing neonics with pesticides that are older, less effective and demonstrably more harmful to humans and social insects, and farm yields are dropping.

The European Commission banned the use of neonics despite the fact that the science community is sharply split as to whether neonics plays a significant role in bee deaths. The causes of CCD and subsequent winter-related problems have since remained a mystery—and a heated controversy.

Bees play an integral role in agriculture helping to pollinate roughly one-third of crop species in the US, including many fruits, vegetables, nuts and livestock feed such as alfalfa and clover. In 2006, as much as 80 percent of the hives in California, the center of the world almond industry, died in what was dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). More recently, overwinter deaths of bees in the United States has hovered well above the 19 percent loss level that is common and considered acceptable, sometimes reaching as high as 30 percent. Europe has faced similar overwinter die-offs.

But there is no bee crisis, say most mainstream entomologists. Globally, beehive counts have increased by 45 percent in the last 50 years, according to a United Nations report. Neonics are widely used in Australia were there have been no mass bee deaths, and in Western Canada, where bees are thriving. Over the past past two winters, bee losses have moderated considerably throughout Europe and beehives have gone up steadily over the past two decades as the use of neonics has risen.


That did not stop the EU ban from being instituted. In North America, despite the 2006 CCD crisis, beehive numbers have held steady since the time neonics were introduced, challenging one of the central claims of environmental critics.2014-12-14-NA-thumb

While many environmental activists, and some scientists, have coalesced around the belief that neonics as a likely culprit, most mainstream entomologists disagreed. May Berenbaum, the renowned University of Illinois entomologist and chairwoman of a major National Academy of Sciences study on the loss of pollinators, has said that she is “extremely dubious” that banning neonics, as many greens are demanding, would have any positive effect.

Jeff Pettis, research leader of the Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, who formerly headed the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service’s research on bee Colony Collapse Disorder, said the bee problem has been perplexing:

We know more now than we did a few years ago, but CCD has really been a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, and the best I can say is that a lot of pieces have been turned over. The problem is that they have almost all been blue-sky pieces—frame but no center picture.

Last summer, President Barack Obama issued a memorandum asking agencies to address steps to protect pollinators, however, the report is not expected to be released until next year. The panel is being headed Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum. In a controversial move, the National Wildlife Refuge System announced a ban on both neonics and genetically modified organisms last August.

Cities, states and provinces in Canada, egged on by environmental activists, are beginning to act unilaterally. Ontario voted to ban the chemicals, as have several cities or counties, including Vancouver; Seattle, Thurston County, Wash.; Spokane, Wash.; Cannon Beach, Ore.; and Shorewood, MN. Oregon held a hearing recently to consider a policy that would limit neonics use.

European fallout

While pressures on politicians increase, farmers in Europe say they are already seeing the fallout on crop yields from the ban–what many claim is a politically driven policy. This is the first season for growing oilseed rape following the EU ban, and there has been a noticeable rise in beetle damage.

Flea-beetle-larvae-615x346Last autumn saw beetle numbers swell in areas of eastern England and the damage from their larvae could leave crops open to other pest damage and lodging.

Ryan Hudson, agronomist with distribution group Farmacy, says that growers in the beetle hotspot areas are seeing some fields “riddled” with the larvae.

“They could do a lot of damage – arguably more than the adults because we cannot control them now and I think we will find out the true extent this season,” he explains.

Near Cambridge, England, farmer Martin Jenkins found flea beetles for the first time in almost a decade on his 750 acres of rapeseed (commonly called canola in the U.S.). He told Bloomberg:

When we remove a tool from the box, that puts even more pressure on the tools we’ve got left. More pesticides are being used, and even more ridiculous is there will be massively less rapeseed.

There is little growers can do now as the only option of tackling the larvae is an autumn spraying of pyrethroid, an older chemical phased out for multiple reasons, so they must now focus on stimulating growth.The infestation may cause a 15 percent drop canola yields in Europe this year and some areas are even worse off. Last fall, some canola fields in Germany were so damaged, farmers plowed them under and replanted winter cereals. Nick von Westenholz, chief executive of the UK’s Crop Protection Association, an industry group explained:

Farmers have had to go back to older chemistry and chemistry that is increasingly less effective. Companies would like to innovate and bring newer stuff, but the neonicotinoid example is not a tempting one.

Bringing new chemicals to market is expensive and takes time to move through the regulatory system. Meanwhile, canola farmers are spraying almost twice as much alternative chemicals from the class of pyrethroids, said Manuela Specht from the German oilseed trade group UFOP in Berlin.

Last fall, UK farmer Peter Kendall said he sprayed his crop with pyrethroids three times last year before giving up, replanting and spraying again.

This increased spraying with harsher chemicals may harm the honeybees, which the neonics ban intended to protect in the first place. . A 2014 study by researchers at the University of London found that exposure to pyrethroids can reduce bee size.

“There is a strong feeling among farmers that we are worse off and the environment is worse off,” said Kendall.

Rebecca Randall is a journalist focusing on international relations and global food issues. Follow her @beccawrites.

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  • RobertWager

    The absurdity of spraying (not seed treatments) of compounds like pyrethroids, which are deadly to bees (look on the side of a can of raid), to protect bees from neonics will be lost on those who push this bad public policy.

    Wait for year two in Europe. Wait til all the other proposed bans on other pesticides are enacted. Food production in Europe is in real trouble. But what do they expect when food production policy is based on emotion and not the best science available.

    • Jeremy Rawley

      What part of “science trumps emotion” do activists and politicians not understand?

      • Bri

        The science is fairly conclusive with respect to the damage caused.

    • Am I mean for laughing at that idea, and saying they will get what they deserve?

    • Nick

      Italy banned the use of Neonicotinoid treated corn seeds in 2008 without any loss in production. So what makes you think that we can’t grow anything without these toxins?

    • George

      Neonicotinoids not only kills insect pests, but also those insects that prey on them, and it may be years before these species recover in numbers to do any good. Farmers that have bought in to the Big Ag model have turned their soil into a sterile growing medium that requires the application of large amounts of chemicals in order to grow anything at all. Without these chemicals, they may as well try to grow stuff on a sand beach.
      Organic farmers, on the other hand, have no trouble growing tastier and more nutritious produce without the use of chemical help.

    • Sweetie

      What a paradise it will be when everyone has to hand-pollinate like China.

      Or maybe you lot should move there now?

  • Loren Eaton

    Well, “you reap what you sow”…..Unfortunately, it won’t be the crops.

  • Roro

    The UN report you refer to, states that neonicotinoids are detrimental to bees: “Systemic insecticides such as those used as seed coatings, which migrate from the roots through the entire plant, all the way to the flowers, can potentially cause toxic chronic exposure to non-target pollinators. Various studies revealed the high toxicity of chemicals such as Imidacloprid, Clothianidin, Thiamethoxam and associated ingredients for animals such as cats, fish, rats, rabbits, birds and earthworms35. Laboratory studies have shown that such chemicals can cause losses of sense of direction36, impair memory and brain metabolism, and cause mortality37, 38. Others have found that some neonicotinoids, combined with certain fungicides, synergized to increase the toxicity of the systemic insecticide over 1 000 times. However, results obtained in laboratory conditions are hard to compare to field conditions.”

    Please provide scientific papers where it is apparent that neonicotinoids do not affect bees? Like for example this one:

    Oh no wait, that shows that it does affect bees…

    • First Officer

      The point is, the alternatives are worse, crop reductions and belated spraying with pesticides that are far more toxic to the above at levels needed.

      • Indi

        No, the point is that people like you are spreading lies and confusing consumers. Why are you doing that? What’s it to you if people don’t want to eat poisonous plants? Go kill yourself, and eat all you want. But label our food so we can make that decision ourselves.

        And then you change the argument. No. We can demonstrate that you are lying. “There are no studies proving blah blah blah.” Yes, there are.

        So, why are you intent on spreading lies to people? What is in it for you? Are you in with Monsanto? Invested? Hate people? Why?

        • First Officer

          You already have your non-gmo and organic labels.

        • Jeb Humphrey

          So, you want ‘your’ food labeled even though it’s not ‘your’ food if you’re not planning on buying/consuming. Do you realize how contradictory and stupid that sounds?

          You can make your decisions without having to impose on rational people the added/unnecessary expense… Trust me, there are plenty of companies happy to capitalize on your ignorance. Non-GMO, All-Natural and Organic are clearly/proudly displayed on the products you’re looking for. You’re welcome.

        • Farmer Sue

          Indi. OK, you won’t look it up yourself. So here is the info. There are about 10 foods produced through genetic engineering. (those you will have to look up) Most prepackaged food has some GE ingredients in it. So there. Now you know exactly what to eat and what not to eat. And all without misleading (to the point of fraud) labels. Voila.”
          Now you have no excuse to whine “I just want to know what I’m eating.” I just told you.

      • Nick

        Wrong! Older pesticides that were sprayed on crops maybe not safe for the applicator would break down quickly in direct sunlight, bees could be moved for a few days and then returned to their original location.
        Beekeepers could even close their bees in for a day or two. Neonicotinoids are systemic and are expressed in the pollen and nectar of all treated plants. They
        are water soluble and contaminate rivers and streams, contaminated planter dust drifts over to none target fields and contaminates none target plants, these
        toxins are thousands of times more toxic to bees than DDT, so just because you don’t see someone out there spraying doesn’t make these neurotoxins safe.

    • Richard Cowles

      The key word in the quote above is “potentially” cause toxic chronic exposure. The problem is that studies demonstrating these toxic effects on bees have grossly overestimated the field-relevant dosages to which bees are actually exposed (see Carreck and Ratnieks, J. Apic. Res. 53: 607 – 614). These systemic insecticides are acropetalar, they move upward in xylem sap. They accumulate in tissues like leaves that have photosynthetic function and act as a “sink” for xylem sap. All studies that have investigated the concentrations of neonics in various plant parts have found highest concentrations in leaves, much lower concentrations in whole flowers, very low concentrations (single ppb) in pollen, and single ppb or non-detectable levels in nectar. The foundation of toxicology is the concept that “the dosage makes the poison.” Until there is evidence that bees are adversely affected by dietary exposure of 6 ppb or less of neonicotinoids, the notion that these seed treatments (other than the release of dust, and a transient effect from guttation water) are harming bees through the resulting pollen and nectar are “barking up the wrong tree.” The fact is that there are very convincing explanations for CCD in the form of a complex of diseases exacerbated by varroa mites. Diseased bees about to die leave the hive in a phenomenon called “altruistic suicide.” Furthermore, there are plenty of other reasons for other pollinators to be in trouble, especially through habitat fragmentation and loss of vegetational diversity through the spread of exotic invasive plants and overgrazing by white tailed deer (in New England).

      • Mike Gilli

        No no, they always say ‘potentially’ and ‘probably carcinogenic’ for example, just to cover themselves against being sued by Big Ag.’Potentially’ you can be sure means ‘toxic as hell’.

    • George

      Nobody has even mentioned that these insecticides are present in the part of the plant that we eat.

  • First Officer

    EU farmers should threaten to go on strike, refuse to plant until neonics are reinstated.

    • Bill

      Actually I would rather see the farmers along with the CEO’s
      of Bayer and Syngenta prosecuted for contaminating millions of hectares of land with nerve agents without any proof that there was even a pest problem!

    • Sweetie

      Because everyone wants us to turn into China. Let’s hand-pollinate everything!

  • Indi

    In one year you’re able to come up with all these conclusions. You’re no scientist, and you’re not even quoting scientific articles. More time would have to pass before passing the judgements you’re passing. You must be a god. One year! Shill.

    • First Officer

      SAS, Shill Accusation Syndrome, strikes again!

  • agscienceliterate

    So sad they’ve reverted to using pyrethrins instead of other less-toxic insecticides.

  • There is a lot of nonsense being spoken here. Yields are not down in Europe. In fact the first country to release official stats on yields of crops without neonics for 2014 – Hungary -showed that yields are higher than ever. Farmers in the UK suffered a reported ‘devastating’ loss of the canola crop due to an outbreak of flea beetle – but official figures reveal that the actual area of crop lost was just 1.5% – about normal. The tales of crops being wiped out are industry hype – not supported by a single shred of actual fact. European farming is doing just fine post-neonic.

    The ‘older, nastier’ pesticides being used ‘instead’ of neonics were still used pre-ban – it was routine practice for European farmers to spray pyrethroids on to neonic-treated crops. Pyrethroids can kill bees if misused, but at least they don’t persist in the environment for years after use, as neonics do. And they aren’t systemic, so they aren’t absorbed by crops and transferred to the nectar and pollen. All in all, a lot safer.

    • With all due respect David, your views are an outlier in the entomology community. I’ve interviewed dozens of them in the US and the UK, including the top ones, and not one agrees with your analysis, which they say is highly ideological and not reflective of field science. I know you have a huge investment in your belief that neonics are a danger, but the science just doesn’t show that, nor does the evidence coming out over the past few years. I’m sure you will dismiss this but that’s fairly typical with ideological science…resistance to evolving empirical data. If the data eventually points in a different direction, the mainstream views will change. As of now, all you have to play is a “precautionary card” and mostly questionable research with the conclusions arrived at years ago.

      • “…. not one agrees with my analysis”. So not the other 28 authors of the 8 review papers in Environmental Science & Pollution Research, just published, which clearly concludes that the overwhelming weight of evidence points to neonics being a major environmental hazard? Not the majority of European Environment ministers, who voted for the moratorium? Not the European Food Standards Agency, who spent 6 months reviewing the evidence and concluded that neonics pose an “unacceptable risk” to bees? You try to make me sound isolated, which suits your purpose, but I have the backing of the large majority of independent scientist
        s around the world……

        • Sure, you can find many scientists who agree with your worldview. There are many scientists who question global warming. First, that magazine is not exactly a towering example of entomological research. The key point is that you are an ideologue…less interested in following the crumbs of empirical research and more interested in supporting a movement. You are from a distinct personality type, which is not typical of open minded science/empirically based research. You are who you are. The most prominent independent minded entomologists are cautious on this issue, but none embraces the dogmatic interpretations of the data that you are quite infamous for.

          • Hi Jon,
            Since you chose to make a personal attack, rather than trying to discuss the evidence, I googled you. The fourth entry I found says the following “Jon Entine is a corporate propagandist and pseudo-journalist who utilizes his media savvy to promote the opinions and positions of chemical corporations, by posing as an independent journalist. Entine has multiple, documented ties to biotech companies Monsanto and Syngenta, and plays a key propaganda role via another industry front group known as the American Council on Science and Health”.
            You also criticise my approach to science. I’ve published many hundreds of papers based on empirical studies. Your scientific credentials are, seemingly, non-existent???

          • Jeremy

            The 4th entry was “The Propagandists” a really reputable site………dig a little deeper unless this site represents your level of scientific confidence.

          • Stevie Masen

            Oh, NOW who’s making this personal?!? A senior researcher at UC and the founder of the Genetic Literacy Project, and you call him an industry shill? Nice. So everyone that doesn’t share your views is a propagandist and a corporate sellout. Following that logic, you’re a shill and a sellout for your cause, then.

          • James R. Olson

            OOps. what happened to John? As an aside I have farmed organically all my life (I am 75) and I( have used Pyrethrins often as an acceptable alternative to more dangerous chemicals.

          • Mike Gilli

            Excellent work Dave! These criminals pose as ‘experts’ but are here being paid to promote the destruction of the natural world for private profit. They should have their home addresses passed on to the Earth Defenders!

          • Bri

            Gotta love a guy who is shown the science and then turns around and attempts to say that we don’t believe in science. I should also point out that attacking the magazine and not the argument is fallacy 101 stuff.

    • hyperzombie

      Pyrethroids can kill bees if misused

      Misused? Like taking it out of the bottle and spraying it? Do the bees in the UK wear little haz mat suits?

      Every year since the ban, UK rapeseed yields have been trending down, they are now back to the yields enjoyed in the 1990s. Yeah, backward progress…

      • Why don’t you try to get even a slight grip of the facts before spouting off? “Every year since the ban… rapeseed yields have been trending down”? The ban began December 2013, the first rapeseed sown without it was therefore in autumn 2014, this crop is still only two inches high – the first rapeseed yield from a crop grown without neonics won’t be harvested until July 2015. How could it be trending down when there hasn’t been a single harvest yet? Why would you simply make things up?

        • hyperzombie

          Well I would be the first to admit that I am wrong, But i was under the impression that 3 of them were banned in 2012.
          If I am wrong, please enlighten me.
          PS, it still doesn’t change the fact that Pyrethroids, are totally deadly to bees and all other insects.

          • The partial ban on the 3 neonics – imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin – began 1 December 2013. In the UK, the main crop affected by the ban (it only applies to use on flowering crops) is rapeseed, and this is almost all sown in autumn. So when the ban went into effect, the neonic-treated crop had already been sown. Thus the first rapeseed crop sown without neonics was in autumn 2014 – and this will be harvested this coming summer. So to say, as you did, that “Every year since the ban, UK rapeseed yields have been trending down” is clearly factually incorrect.
            I completely agree that pyrethroids are also lethal to bees – if sprayed where bees are active. Of course the same is true of pretty much all insecticides. They are, after all, intended to kill insects.
            However, it is a misconception that EU farmers have returned to using pyrethroids because of the neonic ban. They never stopped using them, typically applying pyrethroids ~3 times to crops that had also been dressed with neonics. So before the ban, bees were exposed to both. Now, they just have to cope with the pyrethroids. If I was a bee, I’d say that was a small improvement.

  • erik novak

    What BS! The title states ‘with no benefit to bees’ but nowhere in the article does it provide any evidence the ban didn’t help bees. Evidence might not yet be in one way or another, but I suspect if some study showed bees declined, the author would have mentioned it.

    Seems like the author picked a title, talked about effects from fewer pesticides on ONE farm and some quotes from farm groups who will always want more pesticide choices, and called it a day.

  • R E

    Organic growers are reaping 30 to 40 % more crop for crop than toxic chemical growers. Tell me, reason with me that fact!

    • Stevie Masen

      And you can back that up with…..?

      • hyperzombie

        Here you go.

        • Robert Cheatle

          This shows that organic yields are lower than conventional. Is that the point you were making? This is what I would expect. What is you source?

          • hyperzombie

            Yes organic yields are lower and that is the point I was trying to make. The chart is from a UC Davis study.

          • Robert Cheatle

            Thank you….

          • hyperzombie

            You are welcome.

    • Farmer Sue

      RE — the opposite is true.

  • Derek Williamson

    “Globally, beehive counts have increased by 45 percent in the last 50 years, according to a United Nations report.”

    The report you linked to says no such thing. In fact, that UN report does say that “losses of honey bee colonies since 2004 has left North America with fewer managed pollinators than at any time in the last 50 years.”

    Are you just outright lying?

  • Stevie Masen

    Interesting–they said they banned neonics in Europe 2 years ago. They also said Europe’s bee die-off has moderated in the last 2 winters. What were the last two winters in Europe like climate-wise? Australia and western Canada also use neonics and have not had a problem with mass die-off; their bee populations are stable. Is their winter climate similar to what Europe’s was like the last two winters? Maybe it’s not “just” the neonics; maybe it’s a combination of neonics and and climate, and how that affects bees in the winter. One source I read says bees seem to prefer neonic-laced crops, but that they don’t eat as much of it. Maybe they don’t eat as much, the winter is longer or colder, they don’t have enough reserves and they starve? I dunno, just thinking here…

  • mchammered35

    I find it interesting that this piece relies on anecdotes about individual experiences and broad statements that lack reference data to argue a position. Always be wary when reports treat individual statements or industry projections as fact.

    • Sweetie

      This piece is propaganda in favor of neonics.

  • George

    The fact is that bee decline is due to a number of factors, not just Neonicotinoids, but they do play a part. Recent research shows that Neonicotinoids act in synergy with other chemicals to exert an effect greater than one would expect from each chemical alone. Analysis of beeswax and pollen has shown over a dozen ag chemicals can be present at one time, and one of the most egregious is one used to control Varroa Destructor in bee colonies. The culprit is not just one chemical, but the entire way we practice agriculture these days. GMO crops, monoculture, and the practice of cultivating right to the field line all have their effect on limiting the amount of forage available to bees. Roundup, sprayed liberally on GMO crops, kills flowering weeds that used to grow between the rows, with the result that not only bees, but other pollinators that depend on pollen and nectar are being pushed towards extinction.
    My own observation is that insect populations in general began to decline in the early 1990s, coincident to the introduction of Neonicotinoids. As a result, other species such as reptiles, amphibians, birds and other predators that depend on insects for their food are also in decline. This mass killoff of insects will eventually find its way up the food chain until it reaches our own food supply. This is a direct result of the way we conduct agriculture today.
    The charts that show that bee populations are holding steady hold no water either. They do more to show the resilience of beekeepers than what is actually happens to the bees. The fact is that replacing dead colonies on a yearly basis places a large financial strain on beekeepers, and many are finding it difficult to stay in business. At present, there is a huge demand for more colonies to pollinate crops, especially since wild pollinators are also in decline, and beekeepers are unable to meet the need. This results in reduced yields, more culls and imperfect fruit, and reduced profits.
    All in all, it’s not just Neonicotinoids that are the problem, but the entire way we grow food today. If we don’t change this, our species may starve to death long before we are killed by global warming.