Rothamsted Research

where knowledge grows

Neonicotinoids and bees

The European Commission has adopted a proposal (Regulation (EU) No 485/2013 ) to restrict the use of 3 pesticides belonging to the neonicotinoids family (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam) for a period of 2 years. An Appeal Committee vote on 29 April 2013 returned an inconclusive opinion where: 15 Member States supported the proposal, 4 abstained and 8 voted against. Since no qualified majority was reached, procedurally, the responsibility on deciding whether to adopt the proposal was with the Commission.

Rothmasted’s position statement on this.

We are concerned that the decision has been made through political lobbying, rather than a comprehensive and sound scientific risk-benefit assessment.  In our view there is still is not enough clear evidence supporting a ban on neonicotinoids.  Of course they can kill bees, they are insecticides; but whether they actually do this, or whether sublethal effects occur and damage the colonies on any important scale, has not been proven.There are many other factors known to affect bee colonies - the varroa mite, the bee viruses spread by the mites, pesticides that beekeepers use to kill the mites, climate effects and flower and nectar availability - all of which need to be taken into consideration.  Thinking we can solve the bee problem by a ban on neonicotinoids may mean we overlook these other important factors.

What’s more, the decision does not take account of the risk of the ban on our ability to control insect pests and secure crop yields.  Securing, and indeed increasing yields for food security, is a priority in Europe and will require a crop protection strategy to avoid unnecessary losses.  At present and until we find reliable and effective alternatives, the control of insect pests (and the crop diseases they carry) will rely on the use of chemical insecticides and banning neonicotinoids will reduce our options.

 A major biological risk of removing an entire chemistry is that resistance will develop against the remaining products.  This is exactly what has happened in human health with bacterial antibiotic resistance.  Or are we willing to accept lower yields, leading to greater imports and potentially higher food prices?  The UK has already become a net importer of wheat this year for the first time in a decade.  It has also been reported that a ban on neonicotinoids could result in a significant impact to UK oilseed farmers, costing the UK economy £630m each year.

That said, we should not ignore the potential implications of pesticide use on pollinators.  Rather than an immediate ban, we should take this opportunity to further study and de-convolute the many possible causes of colony collapse and aberrant foraging behaviour.  This will then help us to balance the risks and benefits for crop protection, crop pollination, ecosystem function and our health appropriately.

We need a proper science-led risk assessment to understand the effects of pesticides (and their active ingredients) on bees, whilst considering the effects on other pollinators (both wild and managed), within the context of farming practice and the wider ecosystem.  This will help us balance the risks and benefits for crop protection, crop pollination, ecosystem function and our health appropriately.  More work is required to get these data.

See also