Our work on neonicotinoids (neonics)

PAN UK was one of the first organisations to raise the alarm about the impact of neonicotinoids on bees and pollinators. In 2012, PAN UK published a ground-breaking series of briefings on the impact that pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids were having on bees. These briefings formed the basis of a submission to an inquiry held by the UK Environmental Audit Committee into the impacts of neonicotinoids on pollinators.

Our work, together with other organisations in the British Bee Coalition, helped raise awareness of the issue with the public and key decision makers in the UK and the EU. Working with others we motivated millions of citizens across the EU to sign petitions and lobby their politicians to ban the use of neonicotinoids. At the same time we disseminated key scientific studies that clearly showed the harm that pesticides do to bees and pollinators.

In April 2013, the first signs of success came when the EU imposed a temporary ban on three neonicotinoids while they reviewed more scientific studies and field studies on the impacts of these pesticides. Finally, as a result of ongoing pressure from PAN UK and our colleagues as well as the public in the EU and the constant stream of scientific studies, an almost complete ban on the three most toxic neonicotinoids was brought into force in April 2018.

The fight is not yet over to protect our bees and pollinators, but a significant battle has been won.

What are neonicotinoids?

Neonicotinoids (neonics) are the most widely used insecticides globally. They are used on more than 140 crop varieties to control a variety of pests especially sap-feeding insects, such as aphids and root-feeding grubs. They are also common in veterinary applications such as tick control and flea collars for pets.

They are a relatively new type of insecticide. The first, imidacloprid, was launched by Bayer Cropscience in 1991. Since then a further six compounds have been put on the global market. By 2008, neonicotinoids had taken a 24% share of the total insecticide market of €6.330 billion.

Neonics are systemic pesticides. Unlike contact pesticides, which remain on the surface of the treated foliage, systemic pesticides are taken up by the plant and transported to all its tissues (leaves, flowers, roots and stems, as well as pollen and nectar). Products containing neonics can be applied at the root (as seed coating or soil drench) or sprayed onto crop foliage. The insecticide toxin remains active in the plant for many weeks, protecting the crop from pests season-long.

Between 2000 and 2016, the weight of neonicotinoids applied to all crops in the UK increased from 26,404kg to 87,704kg – an increase of 232%.

Are neonics banned in UK?

Neonicotinoids, especially seed treatments of imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam on arable crops, were shown to be causing harm to bees and other important insects. As a result, these three were banned for use by the European Union on 27th April 2018, but remain in use in many other places in the world.

In the UK, two neonicotinoid insecticides are authorised for use: acetamiprid; and thiacloprid. They are used as:

  • seed treatments for cereals
  • soil treatment for pot plants in the ornamental sector
  • foliar sprays on apples, pears and a range of glasshouse crops
  • insect sprays for plants in homes and gardens (these include BugClear Ultra and RoseClear Ultra)

Thiacloprid is being phased out due to its potential to harm human health, leaving acetamiprid as the only remaining approved neonicotinoid in the EU.

Ongoing risk to bees and other pollinators

Despite the ban on neonicotinoids, bees and pollinators are still at risk from the harms they cause. The use of emergency derogations from agribusiness claiming that it’s impossible to grow crops without using the banned insecticides is undermining the ban. The problem is particularly prevalent in certain EU Member States such as Hungary and Poland where derogations for use on oil seed rape and sugar beet have been granted by their governments. In the UK, applications for derogations have been submitted and for the most part denied. But there is ongoing pressure from the UK sugar beet industry to allow the use of neonicotinoids in certain circumstances.

UPDATE

In January 2021, the UK Government bowed to pressure from the sugar industry and granted an emergency derogation allowing sugar beet farmers to use seeds treated with the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam. In response, PAN UK mobilised a broad range of organisations to urge the UK Government to reverse the decision and instead invest in supporting farmers to adopt non-chemical alternatives.

Further reading: our blog post ‘Bees, beets and obesity‘ outlines the links between neonicotinoids and the sugar industry.

Read more about pesticides and pollinators

How do neonics work?

Neonics affect the central nervous system of insects. They bind to receptors of the enzyme nicotinic acetylcholine, causing excitation of the nerves, leading to eventual paralysis and death. This specific neural pathway is more abundant in insects than warm-blooded animals and are therefore selectively more toxic to insects than mammals.

Bees have a particular genetic vulnerability to neonics because they have more of these receptors than other insects, as well as more learning and memory genes for their highly evolved system of social communication and organisation. Unlike many insect pest species which are able to detoxify harmful chemicals, bees possess fewer genes for detoxification.

While the older organophosphate and carbamate insecticides tend to degrade quite rapidly in the environment, neonics are more persistent. Imidacloprid can last for months or years in soil and may leach into groundwater under some conditions.

Neonics were originally welcomed as much safer for humans, livestock and birds than other insecticides. Seed treatments were seen as a more effective method of targeting pests than spraying crop foliage, and more environmentally-friendly because they can reduce the number of spray applications needed in-field. However, over time, it has become clear that they pose different and poorly understood risks to bees and other non-target invertebrates precisely because of the properties that have made them so useful to farmers: their systemic action; their persistence in crops and soil; and their potency at low concentrations. Added to this, their widespread use in many cropping systems and their unplanned presence in pollen and nectar builds up a worrying picture of low level but continued exposure for pollinators, which our regulatory risk assessment schemes are only just starting to address.

Why are Neonics so Bad for Bees?