Ethical Dilemma:  Is It Okay To Kill Bees In Order To Test Insecticides?

Updated: 28th February 2021

During the process of testing insecticides on bees, some may die.  Is it okay to test insecticides on bees? 

Elsewhere on this website, I refer many times to the testing of insecticides on bees. Bees are one of the species specified by regulatory bodies across the world upon which insecticides must be tested. 

However, I point out elsewhere on this website that regulatory tests are flawed, and in many areas, they fail to take account of impacts on wild species, which may be significantly more vulnerable to the negative impacts of insecticides than honey bees, upon which regulatory tests have long relied.  

honey bee on pink Japanese anemone

I also advocate that better regulatory tests are needed, and the agrochemicals industry must be forced to comply with them PRIOR to authorizations being granted.

Poor regulatory tests can result in more wildlife casualties than would otherwise have been the case.  The whole scandal of neonicotinoids meant that independent scientists needed to provide yet more and more evidence to counter the flawed studies allowed by agro-chemical industry-friendly regulators.  

As a result, yet more bees were needed for the testing of these poisons, and inevitably, more bees died as a result of neonicotinoids in the environment. 

Had regulatory tests been adequate in the first place, mass bee deaths and colony losses could have been avoided, and the additional research would not have been needed.

All of this brings me to the issue of the ethics of regulatory testing, given that species die in the process of tests being conducted.

This issue has long been on my mind, such that I had considered writing a page about it years ago.  Then recently I was asked the question directly:

“Do you agree with the testing of insecticides on bees?  After all, bees are killed in the process”. 

So what is my personal position on all of this?

The fact is, I feel genuinely uneasy about these tests overall, and always have, even whilst advocating that at the very least, tests should be fit for purpose.  This is because I find even the thought of bees being willfully killed, upsetting.

Does it serve a greater good to kill bees for regulatory tests?

Arguably, a greater good is served by conducting these tests – or should be!  The EU and EPA failure to regulate properly in the case of neonicotinoids has unfortunately meant that the greater good was not served - and this continues to be the case - including in the EU where Sulfoxaflor and other next generation neonics have been approved, despite a supposed 'ban'. 

As a result, more bees were lost, and more poison was allowed into the eco-system than would have been the case had the tests been conducted properly. 

In short, these tests can only claim to serve the ‘greater good’ if they are adequate in the first place, since the aim should be to minimise deaths and damage to wildlife, not hide it as a way to appease the public for the sake of manufacturer profits!

Thus, regulatory tests from the EU and the EPA, have failed at the first hurdle.

But what if regulatory tests really were effective?  Would it be okay then?

I suspect that hardly any insecticides – if any at all – would be authorized for use, especially over large areas of land.  This would necessitate the need for growth in other areas of crop protection, which could then move through the regulatory system with relative ease. 

For example, some farmers are already using wasps for pest control.  Ultimately, I think this would significantly reduce the number of harmful insecticides being produced and tested. 


Because manufacturers would eventually get the message that spending millions of dollars, pounds, euros etc on developing poisons which had an unlikely chance of being authorized, was a costly waste of money.

Eventually, they would be forced to move away from such business and find better approaches.  This indeed happened many, many years ago - human pharmaceuticals had to be regulated to protect people from being sold all manner of toxic substances, to cure - ooh, boils for instance. As a result, manufactures have, over time evolved safer ways of producing medicines.   

However, just one word of caution here: regulations are still needed even for biological controls!  For example, commercially reared bumble bees have been found to potentially put wild species at risk.  Wild species need to be protected from such scenarios.

However, in a system of proper regulation, other methods of agriculture might develop and flourish, such as mixed cropping, and using organic nutrition to create strong plants which can better resist attack from pests and diseases. 

A greater awareness and understanding of pest attack and impact might also spread among farmers.  For example, if pollen beetle is spotted on oil seed rape, farmers might be tempted to spray crops immediately (and unnecessarily).  A study by ADAS confirmed that crops were sprayed when in the majority of cases, infestation levels were so low that treating the crops had been unjustified, since crops can and do recover from pests if infestation is below certain levels.

Real solutions for real problems

I want to point out that some people do propose banning all tests and all insecticides immediately.  I would suggest that we need to be sure we have our ducks in a row with alternative and effective solutions to real problems first.  

After all, it’s not merely farming where insecticides are used.  They are also used in domestic settings, and sometimes in tricky situations.  What would your advice be to a low income family or single parent in any one of these situations - or what if you faced one of these scenarios?:

  • A home was at risk due to wood boring insects.

  • Poisonous biting insects or arachnids represented a danger – for example, I have heard of brown and black widow spiders setting up home in caravans and family vehicles, as well as homes (the danger depends on the country in which you live).

  • There was a very real hygiene or health threat posed by the insects or invertebrates - such as a cockroach infestations - which had moved into a family’s home.

What is the best way to deal with these scenarios above?

  • Should the ‘offending species’ be allowed to live in the human space regardless?   In some cases, this is dangerous and impossible!  What if it were your human space, or your child at risk?

  • How would you deal with black or brown widow spiders in your house or vehicle?

  • Is the best solution simply ‘removal’?  (Not always an option).

  • Is the solution to find another method of killing the ‘pest’, but one which does not use insecticides?  Some people would have a problem with killing even ‘dangerous’ pests - no matter what the method.


No matter what the insecticide is for, regulators require that it is tested on bees

If an insecticide is used in any of the scenarios above - including the last one, it will have been tested on bees during the regulatory process, because bees are one of the test species determined by regulators.   

The theory is that bees are so important, that any insecticide posing 'unacceptable risk' to bees should not pass through the system (okay, thanks to regulators and shoddy regulatory studies, it hasn't worked out that way).

Preventative measures are always best in my opinion, but this is only possible if such measures are realistic and do actually exist.  On the other hand, an environmentally toxic method of prevention is hardly going to offer a better solution – and again, is likely to have been tested on bees in the first place.


I very much dislike the notion of testing insecticides on bees or anything else.  That said, real problems and dilemmas do exist.  I hope we can find better solutions to those problems in the near future. I believe (as evidenced by such examples as  "pest control wasps" used by farmers) that this process has already begun.

body snatcher wasp side view - image links to a page about this subject

Body Snatcher Wasps!

Why are farmers turning to wasps to help them control crop eating pests?


Why have bees stopped visiting my garden?


How do neonicotinoids work to kill insects like bees? 

Manufacturers provide clues!



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