Neonicotinoid Pesticides
And Non-Target Insect Species

Are Neonicotinoid Insecticides Toxic For Beneficial Insects Other Than Bees?


  • Patents for pesticides are very revealing in indicating the types of species potentially at risk from harm.
  • For example, patents indicating they ‘combat Lepidoptera’ are referring to moths and butterflies.
  • In the UK, it seems reasonable to presume that over 2,000 beneficial and harmless species of butterfly and moth are at risk, for the sake of very few crop pests.
  • It would take a huge leap of faith for me to believe that these pesticides are only going to kill 'pest' species of Lepidoptera, but conveniently remain non-toxic for harmless species. What about you?
  • The regulatory system does not require manufacturers to test on harmless butterflies and moths. Actually, at the time of writing (2012) the system requires tests on only 7 invertebrate species: honey bees, earth worms, waterfleas, and 4 others.
  • If insecticides pose 'unacceptable risk to bees', they may not be authorised for use.  Therefore, if manufacturers admit such a risk to bees, they won't be able to sell them.  So how likely are they to state 'effective against bees' on a patent? (Manufacturers are, however, allowed to admit killing 'Lepidoptera' species, and still market their product - though they don't need to add this to consumer labels).
  • Farmland butterflies have experienced very significant declines in the UK.
  • Isolated conservation efforts to save a species from extinction are all well and good, but they don't cut to the root of the problem in the grand scheme of things. We're seeing very major declines in invertebrates, birds and mammals on farmland - I suspect dousing hectares of land in poison isn't helping.

The Detail......

Neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides which are toxic for bees. This is not in doubt. Even manufacturers of these poisons don’t deny it – it’s on the product information sheets.

But if we want to know which other insects and invertebrates may be harmed by neonicotinoids - or indeed any types of pesticide, a good place to look is on the product patents.

Patents may tell you about species or groups of species that could be at risk – species the manufacturer doesn’t have to tell you about on the product label. For example, there may be species within an insect family, some of which are labelled 'pests' and other very similar species which are not.

But surely, they would tell us if beneficial insects could be harmed?

Surely our regulatory bodies deal with this?

We’ll get to that in a moment. You’ll see that there is no requirement – certainly in the UK (and EU), for manufacturers to test for effects on, for example pollinating butterflies, ladybirds, lacewings, and other well-recognised gardening, farming and eco-friends, despite any claims on a patent that might be suggestive of a potential risk.

Manufacturer Patents

Patent databases are not easy to navigate, however, patents for insecticides can be researched at:  Google Patents.

Remember, neonicotinoids include Clothianidin, Imidacloprid, Acetimacloprid, Thiacloprid, Thiamethoxam, Dinetofuran, and in some countries, Nitenpyram. You may also want to check out another systemic insecticide called Fipronil.

When retrieving patents, take a look at which species or orders of invertebrates it is stated the product can control.

I looked at:

  • Patents for pesticides containing neonicotinoids
  • Patents for other compounds quoted on patents concerning neonicotinoid insecticides.

I invite you to do the same, so you can see for yourself.

What did I find? Lists of many different species and invertebrate groups.

But let’s take one example: Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths).


A patent registered by Shiokawa et al 1989 for heterocyclic compounds, is cited frequently in other patents containing neonicotinoid imidacloprid (– it was the introduction of heterocyclic ring to nicotinoid insecticide, which helped create the neonicotinoid imidacloprid – see reference).

View the patent. 

Scroll to the section where it talks about efficacy against invertebrates.......

.....and let's focus on what it says about Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths):

“The active compounds........can be used for combating arthropod pests, especially insects.....They are active against normally sensitive and resistant species and against all or some stages of development. The above mentioned pests include:....”


“from the order of the Lepidoptera, for example Pectinophora gossypiella, Bupalus piniarius etc etc....”

there then follows a list of species.

My concerns?

I’m concerned about potential threat to British moths and butterflies that are not ‘target pests’, because it takes too much of a leap of faith for me to believe that these pesticides are only going to kill 'pest' species of Lepidoptera, but conveniently remain non-toxic for our harmless species.


  • the regulatory system for insecticides is flawed,
  • it is heavily influenced by industry,
  • and (certainly in the UK) our civil servants co-operate closely with industry - for me, it crosses the boundary between providing essential guidance and serving, which are different things.

Take a look at the number of insect families mentioned on the patents for yourself, and do your own research about beneficial species in the same family.

I find it ridiculous that the intelligent public are asked to convince ourselves that these insecticides are not going to damage large numbers of beneficial invertebrates, including pollinating and harmless butterflies and moths, bees and so on. It lacks credibility for me.

Meanwhile, neonicotinoids and Fipronil are used on 1,278,811 ha (2011) of UK Agro-land alone (let’s not forget they may also be used on golf courses and in gardens too, and may be used on public land).

And other chemicals may also be used to create a toxic soup, and extend the area of landscape that is poisonous to wildlife!


... it is interesting to note that Vespa spp is also often listed, for the purpose of killing ‘pest wasps’ within the order of Hymenoptera. Bees are hymenoptera, believed to be descended from wasps.   Wasps are actually beneficial to the environment, and farmers are increasingly using wasps for natural 'pest control' . 

Though many people do not like wasps, they are important pollinators, some flora being pollinated specifically by wasp species - all biodiversity has its place.

For more examples of insecticides containing neonicotinoids (imdacloprid and others), check the links top right, and do your own searches too.

Don't pesticide manufacturers have to test their poisons on beneficial/harmless moths and butterflies?

Not to satisfy our regulators, they don’t.

Within pesticide regulatory assessment, only a select number of species are used for the testing of insecticides. The full details can be found:  on the government website.

You'll note, the species include:

  • Daphnia magna (water flea)
  • Apis mellifera (honey bee)
  • Earthworms

Other species: “The risk to non-target arthropods is routinely assessed under 91/414/EEC. Annex II of 91/414/EEC states that data on two sensitive standard species as well as data on two crop relevant species are required. If effects are observed with species relevant to the proposed use then further testing may be required.”


For ‘standard species’, depending on the test or product, it appears that either two from Hypoaspis aculeifer (a soil dwelling mite) or Folsomia candida (springtails) or Aleochara sp (beetles) Or Aphidius rhopalosiphi (aphid) and Typhlodromus pyri (a mite) are selected.

So pesticides are not tested on many invertebrates at all for regulatory purposes, regardless of what might be stated in patents!

How Many Lepidoptera Species Are There In Britain, And How Many Are ‘Pests’?

According to the Royal Entomological Society, Britain has few ‘pest’ Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths).

So it seems reasonable to suppose that many beneficial species of Lepidoptera may be at risk, for the sake of targeting a small number of ‘target’ species. When I wrote to the RES, they replied:

“According to Carter 1984, 300 species of Lepidoptera are pests in Europe and 200 in UK. According to Barnard 2011, there are 8500 species of Lepidoptera known/named in Europe and 2570 in UK. So some 3.5% of the known Leps are pests in Europe but 7.8% in UK. The pest numbers will include agriculture, forestry and horticulture.”

So at most, in the UK out of 2750 lepidoptera species, only 200 are pests.

However, I also checked Carter – the number of ‘pest species’ includes clothes moths – hardly relevant where neonicotinoids are concerned - and also ‘insignificant pests’.  This means there are even fewer potential target crop pest Lepidoptera than 200.

I haven’t been able to narrow down the number of species specific to agriculture and horticulture (I’m not aware of neonicotinoids being used in forestry in the UK yet, but maybe they are). I checked the FERA (Food & Environment Research Agency) website and could only find 10 listed lepidoptera species that were 'agricultural pests'. Maybe there are more, but I couldn't find them.

Farmland Butterfly Declines In The UK

It is interesting to note statistics suggest that farmland butterflies are declining in the UK, and have been doing so since 2003 - source Butterfly Conservation report.  

The Butterfly Conservation Brochure 2007 report stated:

“Monitoring data show that agri-environment schemes have failed to halt the general decline of butterflies on farmland in England: there had been a significant decline (30% over the last 10 years) in mean abundance of 40 butterfly species assessed.”

(Note: I originally included links to reports  on this site, but the links no longer function.  You can search for relevant reports here   or contact them.)

This to me shows that intensive, isolated conservation efforts to save a species from extinction are all well and good, but they don't cut to the route of the problem in the grand scheme of things. We're seeing declines in invertebrates, birds and mammals on farmland - I suspect dousing hectares of land in poison isn't helping, and we need to do something about it!

Because frankly, it seems with the exception of a few isolated farming efforts, the only thing 'modern' intensive farming has contributed to biodiversity, is DECLINE.

In addition..........

Isn’t Pesticide Use Out Of Balance With the Real Threat From Crop Pests?

This is what I think.

We drench millions of hectares of land with poison. Why?

“Only 1000 species of insect in the world are considered to be agricultural pests, but each year they destroy between 10 and 15 percent of the World’s agricultural produce.” – source - The British Natural History Museum.

  • Yet humans waste one third of food produced, globally every year – mostly in the West! Source:
UN Report.
  • There are over 1 million insect species in the world. (Source:
the Australian Government.

  • So based on the figures above we could guesstimate that 999 species out of every 1000 is beneficial or harmless, and only 1 is a pest!

How about another idea: ditch the farming subsidies supporting practices which poison the earth, ditch the pesticides, stop wasting food, and then see how that works!?


Personally, I think when international patents suggest efficacy against a class of insects or species within it, shouldn’t this be taken into account in risk assessment for non-target species?

I think this should be the case, and not only with neonicotinoid insecticides, but pesticides generally.

Of course, our regulatory procedures should require pesticides to be properly tested in the first place, but they do not.

And what of the consumer’s right to full information prior to purchase? Who wants to risk killing beautiful butterflies, bees and other non-target insects unnecessarily? Our regulatory bodies may not care, but I certainly do!

  Pssst ... spread the word!

leafcutter bee on sweet pea plant sweet peas for bees