Will Older Pesticides Be More Harmful To Bees Than Neonicotinoids?

Following EU developments on neonicotinoid pesticides, I was bemused by the arguments presented by scientists and the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) “Ban on Pesticides To Save Bees May Really Do Them More Harm” – in The Times on May 6th . 

The assertion was that restrictions of just 3 of the commercially available neonicotinoids may result in farmers resorting to older pesticides, particularly synthetic pyrethroids and carbamates. 

Despite the EU restrictions to some neonicotinoids, they have recently approved 2 next generation neonicotinoids.  Read more.

The Times article states:

“Norman Carreck, science director of the International Bee Research Association, said that the ban would force farmers and growers to resort to older chemicals such as synthetic pyrethroids and carbamates.  He warned of a substantial gap in knowledge of the effects the pesticides have on bees.” 

According to The Times:

"Pyrethroids, the main alternative to neonicotinoids, are highly toxic to honey bees, but some rely on a "repellency" that keeps the insects away.  Little peer reviewed research has been published on the subtler effects of the chemicals, particularly on wild bees such as the bumblebee."

The Times quoted Carreck:

”We don’t know what sub-lethal effects they may have,” Mr Carreck said. “Before this ban was proposed, it was proposed that a full environmental impact assessment of the implications of the ban should take place and as far as I’m aware no-one has really considered that.

“It may well be that other bee species are more sensitive to these things than honey bees.  Honey bees live in vast colonies and we know that they can lose a large number of workers before the colony dies.”

However, in 2008, Norman Carreck, a former technical advisor to the British Beekeeper’s Association, and student of Rothhampstead where pyrethroids were developed, stated in a feature for the BBKA newsletter (1) that

‘Carbamates and Pyrethroids Are More Bee Friendly’,

 and that

“in practice they can be sprayed on flowering crops without harm to bees”.

(On flowering crops? I'd like to see independent evidence to support this last point).

YET, EFSA had already concluded that testing of neonicotinoids on other bee species such as bumblebees, had been inadequate in any case.  Surely this is something Norman Carreck, in his position, would be aware of?  They clearly said: 

"Sub-lethal effects should be taken into account and observed in laboratory studies. Potential laboratory methods to investigate sub-lethal effects would be testing of Bombus microcolonies to investigate effects on reproduction, proboscis extension reflex (PER) test for neurotoxic effects and homing behaviour for effects on foraging, including orientation. Further research is needed in order to integrate the results of these studies in the risk assessment scheme.

So what should we do then, Mr Carreck?  Allow Neonicotinoids to remain on the market, with inadequate testing and unacceptable risk to bees, just in case the synthetic pyrethroids ALSO are proven to be risky?  How about banning ALL chemicals unproven or found to be unacceptably toxic instead?  Isn't that what we should do?  Or should we just allow the continued spreading of poison around the countryside?

The BBKA was also reportedly concerned about the ‘lack of scientific evidence behind the older pesticides’.

However, it seems the BBKA, now appear to be afraid that farmers will resort to using pesticides from the very same class (synthetic pyrethroids) they previously have controversially endorsed (2).

So let's get this straight....

their argument seems to be....

"we shouldn't ban neonicotinoids that EFSA and independent scientist investigations have already shown

- to have not been properly tested and
- pose unacceptable risk to bees

.... just in case something we previously endorsed also has not been properly tested".

....anyone feel there's a spot of hypocrisy here?

Not one of the parties in the feature hit upon the main point: in the case of the 3 systemic neonicotinoids restricted, EFSA showed that data submitted by industry did not adequately meet requirements of the law to ensure bees are protected from ‘unacceptable risk’ (3). 

In other words, they should not have been on the market in the first place.

At a workshop in 2011, it was admitted and recorded by industry that pesticide risk assessment

“is not adapted to assess potential hazard and risk from systemic pesticides”(4)

– it seems weaknesses were not subsequently addressed sufficiently to satisfy EFSA. 

I would hope that all parties would agree, in order for the public to have confidence in the regulatory system for pesticides, then poisons must be required to comply with the law before being authorised, and that any product subsequently found not to do so, must be withdrawn.  In the case of neonicotinoids, companies themselves must accept partial responsibility for this – they have largely been setting the terms for the inadequate testing on bees via the EPPO for years, and continued to market them despite their admissions.

I’d also suggest those concerned about synthetic pyrethroids, should ask both industry and our regulators whether they were appropriately tested before registration – after all, industry have previously sported them as ‘bee friendly’, and, (unsuitability for testing systemic insecticides notwithstanding) DEFRA have repeatedly reassured us that the UK has a ‘robust system for assessing pesticides’. 

That said, once EFSA have finished with neonicotinoids, I would quite like them to check on pyrethroids too - but I recognise that EFSA must start somewhere with their investigations, and following major concerns regarding effects on honey bees, they have started with neonicotinoids.

In the meantime, if farmers wish to increase their production whilst reducing pesticides (yet feel unable to embrace organic), then Integrated Pest Management may outperform production compared with the use of neonicotinoids(5) whilst yields of oil seed rape in tonnes per hectare have barely altered at all over the years, including following switch from pyrethroids to neonicotinoids, according to DEFRA statistics. Perhaps you can spot a massive surge in production rate, but I certainly can't - merely slight movements from 1984 (the start of the data) onwards.  However, this link explaining Why We Poison Our Food may prove interesting to farmers and consumers alike.



(1)    BBKA News - NO.173 OCTOBER 2008

(2)   BBKA policy on product endorsement, May 30, 2008 http://www.bbka.org.uk/local/bigmedium/statements/bbka-policy-on-product-endorsement.shtml

(3)   EU Regulation 1107/2009 (Annex II, 3.8.3.)

(4)   Pesticide Risk Assessment for Pollinators: Summary of a SETAC Pellston Workshop; Edited by David Fischer, Bayer CropScience LP 2011

(5) Example see: Bueno et al. 2011 Crop Protection, 30, 937-945; Hurd, Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 19(2): 313-326, 1994 taken from: http://agroecologygroup.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Parliament-neonic-Goulson.pdf

Links: copy and paste these into your web browser:


Maini et al 2010
Stefano MAINI 1, Piotr MEDRZYCKI 2, Claudio PORRINI 1: "The puzzle of honey bee losses: a brief review".




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