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Neonicotinoids – is it time for them to buzz off?

A honey bee on a purple flower

It’s been a tough few years for bees, with numbers dropping in the UK and internationally. Could agricultural insecticides be to blame? Do you use insecticides to keep your garden pest-free?

Everyone agrees that bee numbers are in decline, but the reasons why are still hotly debated.

It’s likely that there are several factors at work, but one that’s been in the frame for a while is a group of insecticides called neonicotinoids. They’re used on some crops and can also be found in many garden pesticides. They’ve already been banned in several countries, including France.

Friends of the Earth is calling on the government to suspend three neonicotinoids from sale and to overhaul pesticide safety tests, which it says are inadequate. It also wants David Cameron to urgently implement a Bee Action Plan. The campaign has been given a boost by a recent European Food Standards Authority Report, which suggests that neonicotinoids pose a risk to bees.

Banishing the bug killers

B&Q and Homebase have recently announced that they’re removing Bayer Lawn Grub Killer from their shelves and Wickes is withdrawing Westland Plant Rescue Bug Killer, both of which contain neonicotinoids. But there are at least 20 more products that contain these chemicals, many of them popular insecticides, and there are, as yet, no plans to withdraw these. A full list of pesticides containing neonicotinoids can be found at pan-uk.org.

Manufacturers insist that pesticides are safe if used according to the label – but does everyone read the label? Even if you do, the wording about bees and the warning not to spray plants in flower or when bees are likely to be flying around is often so small that it could easily go unnoticed.

Dr Ken Thompson, wildlife expert and Which? Gardening contributor, says:

‘Neonics are very effective pesticides, so I can understand the temptation to use them. But they get into pollen and nectar, so you are likely to feed them to your bees, however careful you are. My advice would be to think very hard about whether you really need to use insecticides at all, and then use them only as a last resort. And if at all possible, do not use insecticides on or near plants with flowers that are visited by bees.’

I haven’t had to think about it much at all – I don’t use insecticides. Anything that’s labelled a ‘bug killer’ will kill any bug, not just bad ones. Bees need all the help they can get, so surely anything that is thought to harm them should be withdrawn as a precaution?

Do you use insecticides and if so, do you read the label? Do you think neonicotinoids should be banned?


Rather than introducing and then banning chemicals used in agriculture and gardening we should be focusing on expanding use of biological control. Biological control can be too specific in its target, but that has to be better than using chemicals that are harmful to everything.

There seems to be good evidence that neonicotinoids cause harm to bees. The pesticide companies resist withdrawing them for commercial reasons, not unaturally, and have published “research” to defend that position I understand. Therefore as sensible voluntary action is not forthcoming it is time for a ban to be enforced to protect a commercially valuable insect that is vital to food production.

The pesticide has been banned ini France – surely one of the points of being part of the EU is that all countries act together. The ban should clearly be introduced in the UK.

EU countries act together on some things and not on others. There are plenty of good reasons for this approach.

Neonicotinoids are only one of the threats to bees and they are seen as a greater problem in some countries than others. It makes sense to start by banning the use of insecticides in those countries such as France where the problem is greatest. If the bee population increases then that is a powerful argument to extend the ban.

In principle, I would like to see a ban on neonicotinoids, but wonder about the consequences of a ban on these effective insecticides. What needs to happen is the development of biological pest control that is harmless to bees, to man and to wildlife. This has been used very effectively to control some insect pests.

I don’t read labels because I rarely use pesticides. I did read the strapline on a display of over 100 bug guns ‘Protects flowers, fruit and vegetables for up to 6 weeks’. That rings alarm bells, if it hangs around for that long. It might appeal to lazy gardeners who don’t get the inter-connectedness of nature. It would be better to educate them, but under the circumstances maybe removing the temptation is the way to go. The display also says ‘For feel good gardens, we can help’. No thanks .

I agree, Steve. It is better to avoid using pesticides and fungicides, though having had my own efforts at growing vegetables wiped out, I can understand why many succumb to using garden chemicals that promise to deal with problems. Better to get the products off the shelves to avoid temptation.

I inherited a fair number of roses with my bungalow, and most of them suffered badly from black spot, aphids, etc. I did not want to use sprays on them so simply replaced the roses that were affected. I don’t know one rose from another but I explained my problem to a knowledgeable gardener, who chose what to buy. After a couple of years, I am confident in saying that the problem has been overcome and I have healthier roses. My problem with vegetables was probably caused by me stupidly ignoring the need for crop rotation.

In response to the questions you ask …

1 – as a fruit and veg gardener, I don’t use pesticides and don’t suffer greatly as a consequence

2 – from what I’ve read, I do think there is a case for banning neonicotinoids – surely this is a case where we should be applying the precautionary principle – if in due course, robust evidence emerges that these pesticides are safe for all then the ban can be lifted

Is it not better to try a ban in those countries that appear to be worst affected and look for evidence of improvement? If that is seen then the ban can be extended. Don’t forget that the precautionary principle has been widely criticised.

It’s good to hear that you are able to grow fruit & veg without use of pesticides.

I believe that as far as the UK is concerned the bee population has declined substantially, neonicotinoids have been shown to play a part (I think partly because they are incorrectly applied) and therefore a ban is better than seeing the bee population further damaged, as they are so important to agriculture and horticulture.
The government has slashed the effort that used to look at research into bees – best to play safe rather than rely on the manufaturers’ research.

I am not sure that I would trust any research done by manufacturers. I’m not even sure about independent reports because I’ve seen too many that have been biased in favour of the views of the sponsors.

Here we are debating home use of pesticides, which is a less important issue than agricultural use. In that case there are competing issues of shortage of bees to provide pollination and the costs to companies resulting from pest damage and consequent increase in the price of food. I understand that the risk varies depending on whether bees are attracted to a crop.

According to an article in last week’s Indpendent (www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/rspb-demands-ban-on-deadly-pesticides-linked-to-bee-decline-8503950.html) ….

“More than 30 separate scientific studies in the last three years have shown adverse effects on insects from neonicotinoids, which are “systemic” insecticides, meaning they enter every part of the target plants – including the pollen and nectar which bees harvest.

“In January, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published a scientific opinion recommending that the three main substances – imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam – should not be used on crops attractive to bees.

“[RSPB] will put significant pressure on the Government to go along with a recommendation from the European Commission, following the EFSA report, that the chemicals should indeed be withdrawn.

“So far, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has refused to consider suspending or banning the substances, because it believes that there is no “unequivocal evidence” that they are causing harm.

“Defra has now commissioned its own research into the impact of neonicotinoids on bees and the Department is waiting for the results of field studies being carried out by the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA). These will be assessed by the Government’s Advisory Committee on Pesticides, and on that basis, a decision will be taken about whether to support a ban.

“The key vote will be in a Brussels meeting of the EU Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health, to consider a draft regulation from the European Commission. This would restrict use of the three neonicotinoids to winter cereals and other crops that are not attractive to bees.”

Bill has provided an up-to-date summary of what is happening in the UK regarding agricultural use of neonicotinoids.

Here’s an article that refers to the sale of products containing these pesticides for use in gardens, indicating that some suppliers have removed products from their shelves:

Anyone who wants to dispose of garden chemicals can take them to a household waste and recycling centre that offers this service.

Amber says:
27 February 2013

As a keen organic gardener and beekeeper I don’t use any poisons of any sort in my garden and have petitioned for the banning of neonicotinoids and similar chemicals used in the horticultural industry.
Even the RSPB have, just this month, come out in favour of banning neonicotinoids. They say: “. . there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that neonicotinoids may have unforeseen consequences for some insects, especially bees. Neonicotinoids have certainly been shown to cause behavioural changes and death to insects in laboratory and field conditions, even at very low doses.
“The RSPB is extremely concerned by this emerging evidence and believes urgent action is needed from government, the agricultural industry and the research community. We also believe that any action on neonicotinoids must be accompanied by a wider plan to reduce pesticide use.”
At last it seems that the truth is beginning to dawn on the public at large. Let’s hope it will not be too late for the bee population in this country. I wish the BBKA would follow the RSPB’s excellent example.

Dave Jackson says:
27 February 2013

As someone who has 5 beehives on our allotment site, I would like to see the whole of the neonicotinoid group of chemicals banned at once. I have no doubt that they are harmful not only to bees but to many rare moths and butterflies as well. The companies that produce pesticides all came out of those producing nerve gasses during the second world war. Is it any wonder their morals don’t stand up to scrutiny?

Phil Chandler says:
27 February 2013

Neonicotinoids should never have been approved in the first place. They were not properly screened for toxicity to bees, yet Bayer knew the effect they were likely to have, or they would not have made such big claims for their toxicity to arthropods in their advertising material. There have been more than 30 scientific reports of their deleterious effects on bees since they were introduced, yet DEFRA repeats the mantra about there not being enough evidence. A ban is long overdue.

I would like to see chemical pesticides phased out, unless there is good evidence that they are safe. Most are not nearly selective enough.

Getting rid of neonicotinoids is not going to have nearly as much impact on gardeners as on agriculture. Agriculture relies heavily on the use of pesticides and without them, yields would be lower and food more expensive for everyone. Older readers will remember DDT, a notorious insecticide that accumulated in the environment. However, by preventing destruction of crops, DDT saved a lot of lives. It’s not just a simple issue, or confined to bees.

Biological control can help us by using natural predators. Ladybirds can be used to kill aphids and certain bacteria used to kill larvae of various insects. This has its own problems including the fact that we don’t have treatments available to deal with a wide range of pests. The downside of organic farming is that a huge amount of additional land would have to be used to provide the food we need.

An amazing number of garden chemicals have been banned over the years. When I cleared out my father’s garden shed I took about twenty banned chemicals including DDT, Lindane and calomel dust for safe disposal. I believe that gardeners should think twice before buying any form of pesticide, and I have a lot of respect for those gardeners who manage to do without these products.

Agricultural use was the main target for the ban, where from what I recall many users had not used it correctly, exacerbating the problem. We cannot manage without bees – they have enough problems without adding this one.

trekmate says:
27 February 2013

It seems to be only the manufacturers that consider neonicotinoids are safe for bees. Even our government seem to be skirting around the problem. We should at least be able to rely on the Precautionary Principle and have them withdrawn until the doubters can be persuaded!

Don’t forget that the EU is only proposing a ban for use of neonicotinoids on crops that are attractive to bees, or that they were introduced to replace much nastier chemicals such as organophosphates.

The National Farmers’ Union is not keen on a ban:

It would be interesting to know what impact a ban would have in terms of the cost of food. Many of us could cope with this, but we need to think about those who would struggle. Without pesticides, more land would have to be used for agriculture because of reduced crop yields, and that would have serious effects on wildlife.

I am not arguing that we should keep neonicotinoids but keen to raise awareness that banning an insecticide is not a simple issue.

Phil Chandler says:
28 February 2013

“Without pesticides, more land would have to be used for agriculture because of reduced crop yields, and that would have serious effects on wildlife.” – straight out of Bayer’s Handbook of Lies for Spreading Confusion and Doubt.

The Soil Association produced a report that clearly shows how organic agriculture is in fact more productive in terms of yield and food quality. Once the soil has be returned to fertility – which will only take a few years after chemicals have been withdrawn – sustainable, organic agriculture is perfectly capable of feeding us.

Above all, remember that there is NO NET SHORTAGE OF FOOD in the world – it is distribution and politics that cause people to die of starvation. Most people in this country and the rest of the Western world could live on much less than they currently eat.


Yes, most of us in the UK should eat less, and cutting down the amount of meat we consume would have the biggest impact on providing adequate food. What is needed is independent studies, not commissioned by either and carried out to he highest scientific standards, and with peer review. For the time being, most of us in the UK will continue to eat and waste food and parts of the world will continue to suffer from shortage. We have to be practical and not idealist.

Perhaps a more practical approach would be to promote use and development of pest-resistant crops and (as I keep mentioning) biological control.

I am an idealist too. I think we should be making efforts to contain population growth. Many of the problems we discuss on Which? Conversation could be greatly helped if the UK population was allowed to fall to half the present numbers. What a crazy suggestion! In the meantime, we will continue to destroy our countryside with more housing and turn more land over to agriculture to overfeed the growing population.

Phil Chandler says:
28 February 2013

“What is needed is independent studies, not commissioned by either and carried out to he highest scientific standards, and with peer review.” Another quote from the same book. A favourite tactic of the pesticide lobby is to constantly call for “more scientific research” when there is plenty already, but it just doesn’t happen to suit their argument.

Sorry, but positioning yourself as a ‘reasonable person who just want to be fair to everyone’ may fool some people, but I have seen it used too often by Bayer’s shills for it to fool me.

It is not ‘more science’ that is need here, but more common sense. We know how to grow food aplenty without any need for synthetic fertilizers or insecticides. We just need to wean ourselves off the drugs and get back to growing clean, healthy food as it used to be.

Phil – I am a (recently retired scientist) and have no connection with any company producing chemical pesticides. In the 80s I did do some work for a small company, no longer in existence, working on biological control. I also mentioned examples of biological control in lectures to MSc students, pointing out their advantages over chemical pesticides. I have never read the book you have referred to and my suggestion of independent research is accepted as good practice throughout the world.

I did my first degree in chemistry and have been horrified by various uses of chemicals, including the use of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals for years. One of my interests is chemical pollution of watercourses and through reading about the subject and contact with Natural England I am aware of the impact of agriculture on wildlife. I would love to believe that organic farming techniques can produce the same yields as are currently achieved on UK farms, but I don’t. I am honestly trying to provide a degree of balance and explain why we must work towards a future in which we do not use any chemical pesticides.

Phil Chandler says:
28 February 2013

You have (perhaps unknowingly) used language that is commonly found in forum posts from people who were subsequently outed as industry shills. I am pleased to hear that you are on our side – in which case I withdraw my comments.

Here’s the link to the Soil Association’s reports – http://www.soilassociation.org/innovativefarming/policyresearch/feedingtheworld

Che Guebuddha says:
28 February 2013

There is no shortage of food in the world! Research shows that Western countries throw away/waste 50% of the food they produce (we produce).

We must wake up and change our agriculture to become permaculture orientated. Healthy Soil food web (fungi, bacteria, nematodes, protozoa, earthworms, etc… are entirely capable to balance any type of pests. No-tilling aproach is called for and covering the soil with organics like hay, grass clipings, wood chips, compost to preserve the Soil Food Web.

Adding inorganic NPK to the soil is poluting our lakes and water systems (not to mention the “Dr. Mengele Pesticides”). Soil Food Web keeps the nutrients withing the bacteria, fungi, nematodes, eatrhworms, protozoa, etc which by feeding on each other feed and protect the plant roots.

As Phil stated there is loads of research done showing that healthy food can be grown without loosing the quantity nor quality (better quality). Its all about us now to go into a rehab and get off the drugs (read pesticide)

Thanks for the link, Phil. I would expect this to offer a more honest approach to the topic than anything produced by a company that makes money from selling pesticides, but expecting a balanced view from an organisation that is opposed to their use is not necessarily the best way to find the truth.

Che Guebuddha says:
27 February 2013

There is tons of research done out there showing clearly how devistating neonikca are! No more use of pesticides which arent tested for at least 10 years!!!
We must ban neonics! The next to ban is Monoculture crops!

Viva la Permaculture, viva la Biodiversity, viva la Natural Apiculture!!!

H. Mount says:
27 February 2013

As a keen gardener who has hives belonging to a local beekeeper in my garden I feel really strongly that the evidence against neonicotinoids and their effect on the bee population is proven. They should be banned as quickly as possible.
I am a member of the Hardy Plant Society and wrote an article for their journal, Autumn 2012 questioning the current emphasis on creating wildflower areas versus planting more common annuals/perennials that attract bees. In doing so I did a little research about bees, their declining numbers and the possible reasons.
Neonicotinoids are most definitely one of the contributors but powerful farming and horticultural lobbies have too much influence on the policy-makers.
What will they do when we have no bees to pollinate our food crops?

Pat Cassells says:
27 February 2013

There seems to be a lot of evidence that neonicitinoids are harmful not only to bees but to other insects as well- beneficial or otherwise and so in my opinion they should be banned. I never use pesticides of any sort in my garden and I believe that all gardeners should think twice before buying any form of these things because of the harm they do

Rupertlyttelton says:
27 February 2013

Why is this government so loath to follow more forward thinking governments across Europe in banning Neonicotinoids? Do they really believe the idiot statements from BAYER that they only kill the bugs that attack the treated crops? Are they such sycophants to the Agri/chem industry that they cannot see how systemic insecticides kill all insects, good and bad, that take pollen or nectar from treated plants? Do they not realise that not only bees, but butterflies, bumble and solitary bees are also killed? It beggars belief that these ministers consider themselves to be fit for purpose or am I missing something?

Chemical pesticides and other agricultural chemicals have caused a huge amount of environmental damage over the years, and it is difficult to assess how much harm they have done to human beings. I sometimes wonder if governments (not just the present one) are fit to make any decisions. However, I do hope that they will find out what impact banning of neonicotinoids will have on the cost of food.

Pollination is essential to food production and of the various methods – wind, various insect groups – the honey bee is responsible apparently for over 80% of pollination. So our food production depends heavily upon their presence – damage them at your peril.

Rupertlyttelton says:
28 February 2013

Wavechange wrote:
“Perhaps a more practical approach would be to promote use and development of pest-resistant crops and (as I keep mentioning) biological control.”

Yes, you do indeed keep mentioning the development pest-resistant crops. You wouldn’t happen to be pushing a GMO agenda would you? Hopefully not, as herbicide resistant crops have already caused serious problems. What we need is a ban on systemic pesticides and a return to crop rotation.

I remain strongly opposed to genetically-modified plants, and I have just posted a message saying this.