A Political Battle Over Pesticides

Bees, the pollinators of a third of the world’s food crops, are in peril. And that’s about the only thing scientists, environmentalists, policy makers, and agro-industrialists can agree on.

By | April 10, 2013

WIKIMEDIA, LUIS MIGUEL BUGALLO SANCHEZIn the last half century, the domesticated honeybee population has declined by about 50 percent. In the United States, this year marks the highest losses of honeybee populations, with some of the biggest beekeepers losing more than 60 percent of their insects. But identifying the culprit has proved daunting. Pathogens, parasites, pesticides, and habitat loss are likely involved. Recently, the potential role of neonicotinoid pesticides has taken center stage, as a flurry of studies has yielded conflicting findings—and the controversy is getting political.

Earlier this year (January 31), the European Commission proposed a 2-year ban on neonicotinoids in the European Union (E.U.) to give researchers more time to determine the effects of the pesticides on the continent’s bee populations, but nine of the 27 EU countries voted down the proposal—enough to keep it from being enacted. The Commission is not giving up however, and has said that it plans to appeal the vote. Last week, the environment committee of the United Kingdom’s House of Commons also called for a ban on three neonicotinoids to protect pollinators. On the other side of the Atlantic, a coalition of beekeepers and public interest groups is suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to protect pollinators from two neonicotinoids. In addition, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a report last month blaming the EPA for approving more than 10,000 pesticides with a flawed process, and called for major reforms in the government’s review and approval system.

Neonicotinoids—“neonics”—are systemic pesticides broadly used in Europe and the United States. Absorbed by plants from the soil, they eventually reach the pollen and nectar, which is ingested by bees and other insects. Last year, research demonstrated that even low levels of neonics can strongly affect bee behavior. In one study, bumblebees that were exposed to the neonic imidacloprid in the lab, then allowed to forage in the field, had sharply reduced colony growth rates and produced 85 percent fewer queens to found new colonies in the spring. In another study, more than 30 percent of free-ranging honeybees exposed to the neonic thiamethoxam got lost, failing to return to the hive.

The papers were “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said David Goulson of the University of Stirling in the U.K., a coauthor of the bumblebee study. Previous research implicating neonics in bee decline had been done entirely in the lab. “We wanted to see what happens when the bees have to navigate over realistic distances, find patches of flowers, and bring the food back to the hive,” he said. “We found really striking results.”

So striking that the U.K.’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) decided to reevaluate existing publications. But the agency concluded last month that “the risk to bee populations from neonics, as they are currently used, is low.” Moreover, DEFRA’s own research, also released last month, stated that “laboratory-based studies demonstrating sub-lethal effects on bees from neonics did not replicate realistic conditions, but extreme scenarios.”

But many researchers disagree. “We used exactly the levels found in a treated crop in the field,” said Goulson. Suggesting that the experiments linking neonics to bee decline use doses that are unrealistically high is “part of the smoke screen of lies and confusion that have been thrown up by the agrochemical industry” to defend the use of neonics, he added. 

Indeed, DEFRA’s study was harshly criticized. “It’s the most embarrassing, non-scientific piece of rubbish I’ve ever seen,” said Christopher Connolly of the University of Dundee, U.K. He cited contaminated sites and lack of controls; inconsistencies of experimental locations, times of the year, and colony sizes at start; and lack of peer review. “Despite the lack of scientific validation, this study has been used as evidence by DEFRA to trump previous credible peer-reviewed studies,” Connolly said.

Independently, the European Commission asked the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to also review the existing literature on neonics, specifically Syngenta’s thiamethoxam and Bayer’s clothianidin and imidacloprid. EFSA’s report, released this January, concluded that neonics pose an unacceptable risk to bees and that they should not be used on flowering crops. This prompted the E.U.’s ban proposal and fevered campaigning from both sides of the debate.

The industry is pushing back, however. In a February statement, Syngenta called EFSA’s report “fundamentally flawed,” and warned that a ban would bring “considerable economic harm to growers and absolutely no benefits to bees.” An economic analysis, funded by Bayer and Syngenta, estimated that a ban would cost the EU economy €4.5 billion ($5.78 billion) per year due to declining yields and subsequent losses of farm jobs. But, after France and other countries partially banned neonics at the turn of the century, “crops didn’t collapse, and people didn’t turn to more dangerous pesticides,” Goulson argued. “There’s very little evidence that crops yield benefits from using neonicotinoids.” Indeed, a ban might actually increase yield by boosting the numbers of bees to pollinate the plants; one study suggested that insect pollination increases seed yield and the market value of oilseed rape (canola) by 20 percent over plants pollinated only by wind.

Meanwhile, the evidence against neonics continues to accumulate. In a report released last October, Nigel Raine of Royal Holloway, University of London, and colleagues studied the effects of pesticides at sublethal concentrations, and in realistic combinations, on bumblebee behavior. Chronic exposure to the two pesticides tested dramatically impaired bees’ foraging ability and increased worker bee mortality, putting the colonies at high risk. But it took 2 weeks for differences in behavior to emerge. “The way pesticide risk assessment happens is often very short term—24 to 48 hours—and it’s tested only in honeybees,” said Raine. “We need to improve that.”

Another study by Sally Williamson and Geraldine Wright of Newcastle University, U.K., also found that realistic levels and combinations of pesticides strongly affected learning and memory—again, with serious implications for colony survival. And in yet another report, Connolly and colleagues found that intact honeybees’ brains exposed to the same levels and combinations used by the Newcastle University group caused neuronal inactivation and loss of function in the mushroom bodies—an area involved in learning and memory. “At the relevant concentrations we used, these honeybees will not be able to learn efficiently,” said Connolly.

But the results were dismissed by Bayer’s communications and government affairs manager, Julian Little, who disingenuously suggested that if you give an insecticide directly to an insect, he can guarantee it will have an effect. Last month, Syngenta and Bayer proposed a plan to unlock the stalemate on bee health, including adding new flowering margins around fields to provide pesticide-free bee habitats, monitoring for the presence of neonics in crops, and conducting more research into the impact of bee parasites and viruses on bee decline.

“There are obvious parallels with the tobacco industry,” said Goulson. “For 50 years they insisted that smoking wasn’t harmful to human health, even when the scientific evidence piled up, they still claimed there was no link. And they funded scientists to come up with spurious studies, which seemed to back them up. Here, the scientists funded by the [agrochemical] industry are the only ones that stand up and say, as far as we can tell, there’s no effect of these pesticides on bee health. I can’t help but being highly cynical about the independence of any of that [research].”

Correction (April 11): This story has been updated from its original version to correctly reflect that Nigel Raine of Royal Holloway, University of London, and colleagues studied the effects of pesticides on bumblebees, not honeybees. The Scientist regrets the error.

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April 10, 2013

You write:

after France and other countries partially banned neonics at the turn of the century, crops didn’t collapse

That is a valid point, but it should also be pointed out that the condition of bee colonies did not improve after the ban. Further, collapsing colonies have been documented in other regions, such as in Spain, where neonics were not used. 

The issue of colony collapse is serious, but cannot be attributed solely to neonics. This is fully documented in:

Cresswell, J. E., Desneux, N., & vanEngelsdorp, D. (2012). Dietary traces of neonicotinoid pesticides as a cause of population declines in honey bees: an evaluation by Hill's epidemiological criteria. Pest management science68(6), 819-827

Banning this class of pesticide would constitute a triumph of conjecture over scientific evidence, would very likely not bring any improvement in the health of bees, and diverts attention from the quest for the actual causes of pollinator decline.

Peter Loring Borst, Ithaca NY USA

April 11, 2013

This article is an excellent summary of what has been happning on the neonic front.

What many people don't know is that even in the UK we now have areas where it is difficult to keep bee colonies alive, as the neonicotinoids are accumulating in the soil, rendering the corps grown there more and more toxic to our pollinators.

But not just the pollinators are in massive decline, all wildlife that depends on invertebrates as food source has seen massive reductions in numbers, especially birds populations have crashed over the last 15 years.

With regards to the previous poster we have to ask:

Is Peter Loring Borst part of the lobbying team for the pesticide industry?
- I have seen his posts on a number of other forums, and he's always defending the pesticides, whilst pretending to care for the bees.

April 11, 2013

Truly an excellent article which covers a very complex issue in a fair and balanced way.

Please see my article, from the perspective of a beekeeper, on Google Drive here: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B7FCgF0BwlDGN25iTHoxdlhabms/edit?usp=sharing


Peter Loring Borst's comment comes direct from the 'Poison Industry Playbook' - standard stratgeies of: misinformation, distraction, smokescreen and stonewall. He is 100% an industry insider; not a scintilla of doubt in my mind.

Firstly 'Colony Collapse Disorder' does not exist and has never existed; it is a false syndrome, a euphemism dreamed up by the poison industry's PR wizards - a red herring to send beekeepers and scientists running off down the wrong trail.  No doubt the tobacco industry referred to lung cancer as 'lung collapse disorder' for 50 years, and hired legions of science prostitutes to brainwash the media into believing that tobacco did not cause cancer.  Never has the principle of Ockham's Razor been more appropriate: do not go looking for a more complex hypothesis, if the current hypothesis can account for the phenomena you are investigating. 

Do we have a global collapse of bee colonies and pollinator deaths?  YES

Are these deaths correlated in time and space with any insecticidal factor? Yes

Are systemic neonic pesticides used in every country where the mass-deaths are occurring?  Yes they are.

Is there any country where neonics are NOT used where mass bee deaths are occurring? No there is not.

Are neonicotinoids lethal to bees? Yes - at doses of just 0.1 ppb

Are they found in the pathology of dead bees and in hives, pollen, nectar and honey?  Yes they are.

Ockham's Razor works just fine: we have a global phenomena of bee deaths that is strongly correlated in time, space and ecotoxicology with the global use of the most toxic, systemic crop pesticides ever invented.  Imidacloprid has a toxicity index 7,200 times greater than DDT.


Secondly the epidemiology of so-called 'Colony Collapse Disporder' is 100% consistent in geography and timeline with the introduction of neonicotinoid insecticides. Bayer's imidacloprid pesticide Gaucho was introduced in France in 1992 on sunflowers. By 1994 they had lost 1 million bee colonies and the national honey crop halved. They did the science and they banned neonics in 2000: the bees recovered and the stats prove the honey crop rebounded to previous levels.

Download 'A History of the French Bee Disaster 1994-2003' from here:


Thirdly - Borst spreads lies about Spain: neonics are used on a vast scale in Spain and they have suffered enormous bee losses.

America has lost approx 10,000,000 bee colonies since 1998 and 6,000,000 of those colony deaths occurred since Clothianidin was illegally licensed in 2003.

Argentina, once the largest producer of honey in the world, lost 2 million hives after neonics were introduced; the honey crop crashed and they have never recovered.

Germany and Italy lost tens of thousands of hives in less than a week when neonic coated corn was drilled in the Rhineland and the Po Valley. Both countries banned this technology and in both cases the bee-deaths stopped abruptly.  There are many peer-reviewed studies which document this,

Bayer and Syngenta like to cite Australia as the odd-man-out. Neonics are widely used there but the poison-sellers claim there are few bee deaths. This is totally untrue - the bee farmers report they lose hundreds of hives whenever they are placed near arable crops treated with neonics.  The point is that Australia has millions of square miles of wild bush, forest and chapparal - and the honey from these sources is more valuable - so they choose to place their hives in the back-country; it's more profitable and the bees don't encounter neonics.


The American Bird Conservancy has also just published a major peer-reviewed study by Dr Pierre Mineau and Cynthia Palmer which concludes that the only factor which accounts for the catastrophic crash in US farmland bird populations is, neonicotinoid pesticides, currently used to coat every seed on over 200 million acres of American corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and canola.

See paper:  http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0057457

The key finding is that "a single grain of wheat, coated with imidacloprid" can kill a songbird outright.

Finally, the proposed European ban, which will be adopted in 2 weeks time - is based on a plethora of independent peer-reviewed papers.  The European Fiood Safety Agency commissioned a panel of over 20 eminent toxicologists and ecologists to analyse over 50 studies published since 2000. They concluded that: 

a. neonics are extremely toxic to bees and pollinators

b. there are massive 'data gaps' in the industry-provided data that was used to license these poisons back in 1990

c. the testing methodology used to assess the pesticides was completely obsolete and could never have revealed sub-lethal effects on bees.

d. there is a high degree of 'scientific uncertaintly' about the safety of these systemic neurotoxins.

for all of these reasons they invoked the precautionary principle - which is European Law - that is mandated in such situations.

Download EFSA's conclusions (powerpoint) here:



Graham White

Friends of the Bees



Avatar of: BuzzAboutBees


Posts: 1

April 11, 2013

What is interesting, is how Bayer make claims about how neonics kill termites, which are colony insects - then to compare this with independent science and also the regulatory requirements for assessing pesticides.


And also, it's interesting to look at patents for products containing neonics to see what invertebrates they claim to kill :


Re comments by Peter Loring Borst: 
Firstly, France did not ban all neonics - there were some restrictions to certain neonics on particular crops, and where a ban on one neonic simply resulted in farmers using an alternative neonic or Fipronil which is another systemic.  In addition to which it has been proven by quality independent science that neonics remain in the soil after usage has ceased for at least 2 yrs, (but even manufacturers don't dispute that) - meaning they can be picked up by successive plantings - and presented to bees via nectar & pollen, at toxic levels (Bonmatin et al).

For Loring Borst to quote Cresswell et al followed by "Banning this class of pesticide would constitute a triumph of conjecture over scientific evidence, would very likely not bring any improvement in the health of bees," - is really ironic - the Cresswell paper is very poor quality - no wonder it was only taken up by Pest Management journal - and it can be ripped to shreds inside 10 minutes.  It is also known that Cresswell's department received significnat funding from Syngenta to the amount of £136,000. 

Whereas there are many quality peer reviewed studies clearly demonstrating that neonics are harmful to bees, in addition to the comprehensive EFSA review by independent scientists.


April 11, 2013


Biotech and pesticides giants Syngenta and Bayer are waging an all-out lobbying war against an upcoming vote on a limited ban on three of their pesticides1. The European Commission (EC) proposed this ban following very critical conclusions by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) based on new scientific evidence.

CEO's report “Pesticides against Pollinators”2 exposes their lobbying strategy including attempts to change the EFSA press release. Syngenta had access to this document before its publication and immediately sent EFSA an extremely aggressive letter demanding the text be changed and issuing legal threats against the agency and its director.

Their tactics to prevent a ban against their products also include:

  • use of for-hire scientists to defend their point of view and spread doubt about scientific studies' evidence about the pesticides' effect on bees (including a re-analysis of EFSA's conclusions);

  • misinformation and scaremongering (making unsubstantiated economic and scientific claims) ;

  • attempts to impress the European Commission with boasts about science being on their side, and their powerful political connections with for example Obama and Hollande;

  • putting the blame for possible damage on bees on farmers mishandling their pesticides.


See also EFSA'S Expert Science Panel Opinion here:


EFSA identifies risks to bees from neonicotinoids

EFSA scientists have identified a number of risks posed to bees by three neonicotinoid insecticides[1]. The Authority was asked by the European Commission to assess the risks associated with the use of clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam as seed treatment or as granules, with particular regard to: their acute and chronic effects on bee colony survival and development; their effects on bee larvae and bee behaviour; and the risks posed by sub-lethal doses[2] of the three substances. In some cases EFSA was unable to finalise the assessments due to shortcomings in the available data.

The risk assessments focused on three main routes of exposure: exposure from residues in nectar and pollen in the flowers of treated plants; exposure from dust produced during the sowing of treated seeds or application of granules; and exposure from residues in guttation fluid[3] produced by treated plants.

Where the risk assessments could be completed, EFSA, in cooperation with scientific experts from EU Member States, concluded the following for all three substances:

  • Exposure from pollen and nectar. Only uses on crops not attractive to honey bees were considered acceptable.
  • Exposure from dust. A risk to honey bees was indicated or could not be excluded, with some exceptions, such as use on sugar beet and crops planted in glasshouses, and for the use of some granules.
  • Exposure from guttation. The only risk assessment that could be completed was for maize treated with thiamethoxam. In this case, field studies show an acute effect on honey bees exposed to the substance through guttation fluid.

See their detailed Risk Assessments for the neonics in question:



Avatar of: mikey1


Posts: 1

April 12, 2013

Why no info/debate on the other invertebrate pollinators that must number more than bees and be more sensitive to the neos.
Avatar of: kienhoa68


Posts: 37

April 17, 2013

The wisdom seems to be that you keep using the product until you've caused enough damage to be absolutely certain it's harmful.  Like China, when humans end up doing the pollinating, change will happen. 

Silent Spring revisited.  

April 17, 2013

A more reasoned presentation:


The British Bee Keepers Assn rejects a ban on neonics

?PRESS RELEASE Friday 5 April 2013
BBKA Response to the EAC Report on Pollinators and Pesticides

The BBKA welcomes the publication today of the Environmental Audit Committee report on Pollinators and Pesticides. Not only does the report examine the possible role of neonicotinoid pesticides on honey bees and wild pollinators, but it also looks at the vital issues of habitat degradation and consequential poor forage availability.

Amongst its many recommendations, the report urges Defra to introduce a moratorium on the use of three neonicotinoids on crops attractive to bees. Whilst the BBKA is concerned about the possible damage that these substances may be inflicting on pollinators, it notes that unequivocal field based studies have not been conducted and the evidence is incomplete. 

Perhaps more importantly, the BBKA does not wish to see any action taken that may in itself cause damage to pollinators for example by the inevitable re-adoption by farmers of older superseded and more hazardous chemical agents being re-employed in crop protection.

As noted, the authors of the report still appear to be unable to demonstrate deleterious effects of neonicotinoids on honey bees managed by beekeepers in the UK and we renew our call for further investigations to reassure us that these products can be used safely with regard to honey bees.

The report discusses the use of the precautionary principle and it is obvious from the report that clarification is required on what is meant by the precautionary principle and how it is to be applied with regard to pesticides in the UK and Europe.



Avatar of: ryarnell


Posts: 1

April 17, 2013



This should not be a political battle at all.  What's at stake is the health of agriculture all over the world; the long term viability of a far more essential activity than generating profit for increasingly powerful near monopolies  the seed/pesticide international conglomerates comprise.




The rush to keep next quarter's bottom line satisfactory may in fact be decimating beekeepers and farmers who have been persuaded that they cannot get along without a growing menu of pesticides that weaken or eradicate beneficial insects along with target pests. 




I hadn't intended to respond to a particular post, but Mr. Borst gives me an opening I can't ignore.




I've attributed loss of colonies to multiple factors ranging from un-announced application of pesticides during foraging hours, to stress due to incessant transport of colonies between crops in need of pollination services, to subtle effects of climate change, to misapplication of approved treatments by beekeepers themselves.




Neonics are just one more nail in the apis coffin: one that has appeared at or after our arrival at a tipping point from which bees may or may not recover. 




As I understand the testing procedure that was not supervised in this country by an objective agency, lab work indicated the dosage was not lethal to bees.  However, the same dosage, in the field, disrupted foraging bees' ability to navigate.  On top of that, foraged material that did make it back to the hive continues to give long term doses to bees which eventually draw foraging assignments.  They leave the hive with no chance of returning. 




Politics should not be a factor here because the stakes are so high.  The conservative and, to my mind, sensible approach is to suspend use of neonics until research, wide ranging research that addresses the result rather than a single possible contributing factor to the world wide loss of essential pollinators is complete. 




It may be that systemic pesticides of any kind, pesticides that feed the minimum effective dose over extended periods (a poor strategy when sub-lethal doses can lead to rapid development of tolerance to the material in the target insects) is a poor approach.




Believe it or not, there is time to do this right.  If the neonics prove to be safe for bees, adjust the patent protection to account for loss of a marketing opportunity.  But we really can't afford to do without the most easily managed pollinators if we're going to intensively and agressively monocrop our most valuable eduble crops.




As a small scale beekeeper, we're history.  As an interested party and still a hobby farmer, I disapprove of our reliance on monocropping which, in turn forces us to resort to chemicals which we can't or won't control. 


Richard Yarnell

Beavercreek, OR US




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