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Neonicotinoid ban eases the stress on bees

News that the European Union (EU) has restricted the use of neonicotinoid insecticides was welcomed by scientists, farmers, beekeepers and politicians around the world. But the limitations of the restriction…

Honeybees aren’t the only species pollinating plants in Australia; we have little idea how pesticides are affecting native pollinators. Howard Rawson

News that the European Union (EU) has restricted the use of neonicotinoid insecticides was welcomed by scientists, farmers, beekeepers and politicians around the world. But the limitations of the restriction, as well as the disagreement within the EU, highlight the confusion over exactly what ecological impacts these chemicals have.

Only 15 out of the 27 EU states voted for restricting neonicotinoids, a restriction which will initially only be for two years. It is also not a complete “ban” – it applies to flowering crops that are attractive to bees and other pollinators, but doesn’t apply to winter cereals or “unattractive” crops.

What are neonicotinoids?

Neonicotinoids are chemically similar to nicotine and they act as a nerve agent on insects. They were developed for commercial use in the 1990s, and are now some of the most-used chemicals in the world. They can be applied to grown plants or trees, or to seeds. The chemical is then taken up by the growing plant and becomes part of its structure (its roots, leaves, nectar or pollen), so an insect that nibbles on any part of the plant will get a dose of neonicotinoid in its meal.

These doses may not kill the insect immediately, but over time, repeated ingestion of the chemical will build up in the insect’s system and affect its health, behaviour and reproductive success.

This is not so good for non-target insects like pollinators, which are crucial for pollinating our food crops, as well as for overall ecosystem function.

Will the European restrictions make a difference?

Yes. Despite the disagreement, the EU’s moratorium is an important step in the right direction. It raises much-needed awareness of the ecological impacts of these chemicals, and it will provide some respite for wild pollinators – all those “invisible” insects that are busily keeping plants reproducing in forests, gardens and crop fields.

However, the fact that the ban only applies to some crops means that it will be very difficult to confirm that pollinators are no longer being exposed to the chemical.

How do neonicotinoids affect pollinators?

There have been few studies conducted under natural conditions, which is understandable. Neonicotinoids are almost ubiquitous in the environment; larger insects (like bees) can travel 3-4km to forage; and it is pretty difficult to track and control the movements of most insects! It would be nearly impossible to ensure that the “control” insect population was not being exposed to insecticides during a field experiment.

However, research combining laboratory and field methods have provided conclusive evidence against various neonicotinoids. Honeybees exposed to thiamethoxam were more likely to get lost while foraging and not arrive home – this reduces the colony’s food stores and the survival potential of the hive. Honeybees dosed with imidacloprid also did less “waggle dancing” in the hive, which is how bees communicate the location of food sources to the colony – less dancing means less food collected.

Bumble bee colonies exposed to imidacloprid also struggled – treated colonies showed reduced growth rates and queen production was 85% less than in untreated colonies.

What’s happening in Australia?

Neonicotinoids are widely-used in Australia, and as yet there is no mention of restrictions on their use. The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) is currently undertaking a review into these insecticides and the potential risks to honey bee health. They will release a draft consultation report later this year containing their recommendations.

So far, the focus of this review appears to be on honey bees. As many of Australia’s native pollinators are still understudied and undervalued, the impact of neonicotinoids on native insects is unclear.

Given the evidence from European research, and the current stresses that honey bees and wild pollinators are already facing, the EU’s moratorium is inspiring. In this case, the ecological costs far outweigh the application benefits.

Join the conversation

30 Comments sorted by

  1. Tyson Adams

    Scientist and author

    The other question that has to be asked is: what other method of insect control will be used instead? It may be the case of the lesser of two evils being needed.

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    1. Zvyozdochka

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      That seems to be the argument being run by the chemical companies; is the alternative worse?

      It's a false choice as ecosystems can't survive with the current rate of bee destruction.

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    2. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Zvyozdochka

      Incorrect. If you read Manu's other article on bees she discusses CCD and how neocinotoids are only one of many problems facing bees. So eliminating one factor relieves some stressors but not all.

      So, if you ban one group of insecticides, you are left with the other four major groups, two of which are particularly nasty (organophosphates and organochlorides). There is still the need for insect control in agriculture, so something will be used. The better option, in my opinion, is to put together an agronomy package that limits the damage to "good" insects whilst controlling the "bad" insects. This could have the double advantage of controlling resistance.

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  2. Chris Strudwick

    Human

    I would be happy if the picture was as conclusive as described. Neonicotinoids clearly have toxic effects just like any other pesticides. Some of these effects are subtle at low doses. Again this is nothing new. Other pesticides also can have subtle behavioural effects if researchers care to look. Any review of the literature will show there is hot debate as to whether bees are likely to be exposed to harmful doses when these systemic pesticides are properly used. This is not just the manufacturers defending themselves, so it is disingenuous to suggest 'conclusive evidence' has settled the matter. On another point, bioaccumulation (in bees) - build-up through multiple small ingestions over time - is not demonstrated and is not believed to be the mechanism causing behavioural problems. These are direct sub-lethal toxic effects that possibly act on the 'mushroom bodies' in bee brains.

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  3. Michel Syna Rahme

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    "the impact of neonicotinoids on native insects is unclear."

    So what I don't understand at all is that if there are a variety of impacts from neonicotinoids that are not understood, how and why was its wide spread use approved in the first place? Was it approved because of short term gain irrespective of long term pain? And approved for who by who?

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    1. Shaun King

      Designer

      In reply to Michel Syna Rahme

      Michel, that was my line of thinking too. Just how stupid does a civilisation have to be to release such toxins into it's food chain, with little or no fore-thought.

      How could a toxin be approved for widespread use when it's effects on "everything else" were totally unknown and uncontrollable.

      When oh when is this sleeping population of dumbed down sheep going to stand up to this profit taking monstrous system we call "Western Civilization" ?

      Mankind has farmed for thousands of years without pesticides. To even think we need to replace one with another is to think with the mentality of a politician. Uninformed stupidity.

      I say make em all drink some round-up.

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    2. Mike Stasse

      retired energy consultant

      In reply to Shaun King

      Speaking of roundup, which was once marketed as "safe enough to drink" (!), more and more studies are now piling up on what a truly awful disaster its widespread use will be in the future.

      High time we stopped playing God on farms......

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    3. David Maddern

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Shaun King

      It is probably worse than that, even.
      If it is bio accumulating in bees it is probably bio accumulating in us, as well.
      For instance, captive birds seem to reject bought broccoli but will take homegrown. What would be the difference, but a synthetic systemic residue? Not saying it is this material, but that is one vector for getting it into us.

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    4. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Mike Stasse

      Mike and David, I urge you to actually read up about herbicide chemistry because it is clear from your glyphosate comments that you desperately need to.

      Glyphosate is possibly the safest agrichemical ever. It is classified Class III in the toxicity classing system, or Schedule 5 in the poisons schedule. Both of the these class glyphosate as low toxicity and low risk.

      Also, all users of agrichemicals have to have a license (Chemcert) and are legally required to follow the label requirements for application, mixing, rate and with-holding periods. "Playing god" statements just smack of fear-mongering.

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    5. Mike Stasse

      retired energy consultant

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      New Study Shows Glyphosate Linked to Cancer and Parkinson’s Disease

      http://www.goldmanprize.org/blog/new-study-shows-glyphosate-linked-cancer-and-parkinson%E2%80%99s-disease

      A new study about the harmful effects of Glyphosate is lending weight to 2012 Goldman Prize recipient Sofia Gatica’s campaign to stop the indiscriminate spraying of toxic agrochemicals in Argentina and around the world.

      The peer-reviewed study, which appeared in the scientific journal Entropy, focuses on Monsanto’s popular…

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    6. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Mike Stasse

      I've posted before about Huber, even his own university have come out and corrected his claims.

      As for the linked newspaper article which linked to another newspaper article which required me to track down the paper, which I have now read.... I think the only thing the paper didn't claim glyphosate was directly responsible for was increased gun crime. The paper appears to be nothing more than a series of suppositions with no direct evidence for the claims made. They make some pretty big leaps to suggest the things they do, with no real analysis of actual influence/impact.

      It essentially smacks of confirmation bias.

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    7. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to Shaun King

      Like antibiotics in your meat perhaps? :)

      Those guys that produce it first goes after their balance sheet, and share holders, then studies, unless those comes out in their favor naturally. And those that approve goes after popularity :). I suspect that even professional bureaucrats need some, to survive a bureaucracy, and to advance.

      Most of the things forbidden today I would expect to first have been introduced, subsequently only when overwhelmingly proven to be dangerous, withdrawn. Just look at genetic engineering for a example of a fade we will see change in some decades. The problem with environmental hazards is that although they may create prolific disasters they are very hard to back track. so it leaves it in a fog of disinformation, for all.

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  4. Mike Stasse

    retired energy consultant

    I both keep bees AND grow our own food. Of course, our place is organic, and we have not had any problems outside of the small hive beetle which was accidentally introduced from Africa when we held the Olympic Games. Unfortunately, we have no choice but to use special insecticide traps inside the hives to keep those little buggers under control......

    Since buying our bees, our extensive 200m2 garden's production has appreciably improved, and any time I'm out there doing something, the place…

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    1. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to Mike Stasse

      It's sort of sick :)
      But it's also a question of profits. The downside to that is that the more farmers produce of something, the lower the prices they get. So it becomes a evil circle, to get to that profit I think.

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  5. mark delmege

    self employed

    Confidor as far as I know is the product being discussed. It is available under other names but this is the most common.

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  6. Rachel Morton

    biometrician

    In the good old days, all gardeners smoked pipes and filled their greenhouses with tobacco smoke.

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    1. Mike Stasse

      retired energy consultant

      In reply to Rachel Morton

      ......and died of lung cancer instead of pesticide poisoning! :-)

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  7. William Hughes-Games

    Garden weed puller

    It seems pretty certain that the use of insecticides is one cause of the world wide demise of the bees. Even worse, here in New Zealand, we have let in the varoa mite which has pretty well wiped out wild hives. Our Aparists are now having to work pretty hard to keep their hives going. I don't know why we don't import one of the varoa resistant species of bees. The so called African killer bee is one example. Africans find this description of their bee somewhat amusing. As an amateur bee keeper, I had three hives of these bees when I lived in Africa. Yes they are snarly beasts but they are also better honey collectors than our European bee. For more details see:
    http://mtkass.blogspot.co.nz/2007/09/varoa-mite-possible-solution.html

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    1. Rotha Jago

      concerned citizen

      In reply to William Hughes-Games

      There are two ways to change the environment for bees. One is to attack insects of one kind or another and bees are 'collateral damage'. The other is to target plants, which changes everything for insects. Glyphosate or RoundUp belongs to the second category.
      Glyphosate is supposed to be 'safe' because it is not a poison in the ordinary sense of the word. Damage to humans is low and long term. However it is extremely toxic to Australian Native plants, especially plants which thrive in conditions…

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    2. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Rotha Jago

      Rotha, I went to great troubles to address your claims in a previous thread, it is clear you read nothing of the science I linked, nor understood anything I wrote.

      Your claims about glyphosate are largely scare-mongering and lacking realistic truths (e.g. of course glyphosate kills native plants, but the rate required is beyond the rates used when spraying grasses). Your claims about fungi neglect that fact that fungi and bacteria break down glyphosate.

      Also, your previous claim was that near where I lived had been decimated with root disease in crops directly due to glyphosate last season. Now you are claiming fusarium and glyphosate interactions. Both of these claims are just flat out wrong. Your previous claim is laughable because the problems with crops in my area last year was a decile 1 (drought) season. Your claims about root disease are obviously based on the incorrect claims of Huber, who has been admonished by his own university for those erroneous claims.

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    3. Rotha Jago

      concerned citizen

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      Tyson Adams
      It was your reply to my assertions about Glyphosate damage to subsurface funghi, which explained the widespread problems we have here. Fusarium wilt is extensive now, after almost 7 years of our local Council regularly spraying all roadsides and creek banks in the Shire. Although you could not believe that our soils contain few or no clays, this is true. Our rainfall in the Shire could be measured in meters and the land is actually held together by vegetation and funghi. Glyphosate…

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    4. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      A classical reply Tyson. "I've come to save the world" also whispering "And I Know How To Do It" if you listen carefully.
      I reckon Nature still have some millions of years of practical experience on you yet? And that we might try to see how we can solve it without gene modifications, and pesticides, before using those solutions.

      There are better ways to solve starvation and over population, over a hundred years.

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    5. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Yoron Hamber

      Um, humans have been using gene modifications for thousands of years. The pesticides are generally derived from plants. Your lack of knowledge in this area doesn't mean others don't know what they are doing.

      Also, there aren't better ways to solve starvation, short of depopulating.

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    6. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      Sure they have, by crossing available plants. Don't reckon that to be the same as they types of gene modification we see today, do you? And you're perfectly right in that we need to restrict our population world wide. That's one heck of a good solution :) if we now can agree on it.

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    7. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Yoron Hamber

      Again, you seem to be completely unaware of natural GMOs and how they occur. Virus' often import animal, bacterial and viral DNA into plants (and vice versa). This observation was the basis of GM technology.

      Seriously, this is getting ridiculous. Please read some actual genetics texts and papers.

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    8. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      You're not getting my point, I would expect what nature use to be better principles than some guys leaning on still hotly debated gene technology based on knowledge that at best is spotty. And I'm impressed by you telling me 'you know'.

      I don't think you do.

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    9. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Yoron Hamber

      I never said "I know" but I stated that it was clear you don't know.

      Your statements about geneticists shows a blithe ignorance of their field and knowledge base. Your statements implying "nature knows best" is disproven by vestigial and disadvantageous traits and are almost on par with intelligent design claims.

      I again ask you to actually do some study in this area.

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    10. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      Well, for one that 'doesn't know', you sure come across as persistent in your views. And telling people that doesn't use your jargon that they are clueless isn't that smart either :)

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  8. Manu Saunders

    Research Associate at Charles Sturt University

    There have actually been quite a few studies published in academic journals recently showing toxic effects of glyphosate on various species of frogs, mussels and fish, as well as "non-target" plants (that goes without saying). Remember, that it wasn't that long ago that DDT was once thought safe enough to be sprayed across the landscape!

    It is also important to remember that natural systems are highly complex and each different ecosystem will be unique in some way - what might cause drastic changes in one ecosystem, may only cause a ripple in another, but that doesn't negate the presence of an impact.

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