/ Home & Energy

Honey I killed the bees! Or did I…?

Two bees on a honeycomb

The debate over use of neonicotinoids is still raging. The European Commission has now placed a two year ban on three chemicals which are known to harm bees. But what about those still on sale?

Late last year the European Commission ruled that three neonicotinoids which are known to be harmful to bees should be banned for two years, while others remain on sale.

And now a group of independent scientists from around the world known as the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides (TSFP) published its findings on the impact of neonicotinoids. The report, known as the Worldwide Integrated Assessment, reviews the findings of around 850 scientific studies. It concludes that neonicotinoids are bad news all round – not just for bees, but for other species too. The TSFP now wants a full ban on all neonicotinoids.

Should you bee concerned?

Manufacturers insist that the remaining neonicotinoids are fine as long as they’re used sensibly and according to the instructions.

They argue that the research undertaken is not true to life, and that bees are subjected to higher exposure than they would be in the wild. Some say that other factors, such as a parasite known as Varroa Mite, are more likely to be causing bee decline.

The last time we talked about neonicotinoids, H. Mount thought a blanket ban was the answer:

‘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.’

Do you agree with H. Mount and the TSFP that there should be a full ban on neonicotinoids? Or do you think the action that has been taken is enough? And I’d also be interested to hear if you’ve taken any steps to make your garden bee friendly.

Do you use neonicotinoids?

No (76%, 309 Votes)

I don't have garden (16%, 67 Votes)

Yes (8%, 31 Votes)

Total Voters: 407

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May I suggest a poll on whether we think neonicotinoids should be banned. Reading this article is very informative but there are hundreds of others on the Web to add weight to an already worrying situation.


I do have a vested interest I get honey from my sister-in-laws hives. Buying plants for your garden also means avoiding seed and plants that have been treated with the neonics.

Thanks Diesel, that’s a good idea (maybe next time!) but we’d like to find out about how widely neonicotinoids are used in people’s gardens. Very interested to hear views about a ban in the comments though! So everyone – don’t hesitate to share your views 🙂

Most chemicals that are harmful to one living organism are harmful to others. That’s why it’s so hard to develop antibiotics that will kill bacteria and fungi without harming humans. The number of gardening products that have been banned from sale in the past few decades is frightening.

I would like to see gardening chemicals phased out. In some cases, safe alternatives such as biological control exist, where natural predators can be used to deal with pests.

The bigger issue is of course commercial agriculture. The one thing we can be sure of is that companies that produce neonicotinoids and other agrochemicals should not be trusted if they claim that products are safe. There is plenty of evidence to show that such claims made by companies have proved not to be true in the past.

I don’t believe that I have ever bought any products containing neonicotinoids. For slugs I use ferric phosphate pellets, which are a better choice than metaldehyde (that should have been banned years ago). For aphids I spray with a commercial product containing fatty acids – effectively soap. The most effective way I have found of dealing with pests is to choose plants that are less affected. For example I have replaced roses that were affected by black spot with ones that are little affected, on the recommendation of a friend who is a keen gardener.

I no longer grow fruit and veg, largely because it was a challenge to do this without pesticides. Maybe choosing resistant varieties could have helped.

That sounds like a good idea Amy. It’s not something I have tried.

As bees and other pollinating insects are vital to both gardeners and commercial crop producers we must clearly avoid damaging their numbers.
As a gardener, I use Tagetes in the greenhouse to avoid whitefly, soap solution to dispose of greenfly, slug pellets to protect newly-planted stuff but otherwise let nature take its course and take what food is left. I’ve given up on cabbages because of the butterfly – even found netting unsuccessful.
For commercial food production we need so much that losing a significant part of the crop is both a problem financially and can lead to food shortages. On the radio tonight farmers growing oil seed rape claimed 25% of the plants were lost to flea beatles – controlled before by neonicotinoids apparently. I am not sure biological control can work on such a scale – and are there consequences from releasing huge numbers of the predatory beasts?
“Something must be done” – is there a solution? Perhaps part of it could be to use our own gardens more productively and cut down on the fruit and vegetables we need to purchase. And grow insect-friendly flowers. Dig for victory might return.

There are various well understood problems with biological control, including cost and the fact that it is often too specific, but compared with chemical warfare on pests it is generally regarded as very safe provided you do not use non-native control species. The Tagetes you have mentioned is an example of biological control.

We might be able to choose to grow plants that are pest-resistant in our gardens but this is more difficult in agriculture. There is no doubt in my mind that we need to do research to find safe alternatives to neonicotinoids and other chemical pesticides, so that they can be consigned to the history books, with DDT and the like.

I think all neonicotoids should be banned now rather than wait until it’s too late. There is enough evidence that they do harm and bees are too precious to our survival, let alone the planet, to risk.

Anthonyh, whilst I agree with this, there does need to be something in place to protect commercial crops. What is it? Does anyone have expert knowledge on a suitable acceptable alternative? Are safe biological controls available in sufficient quantity to take over?

Sophie Gilbert says:
26 September 2014

“Manufacturers insist that the remaining neonicotinoids are fine” – I’m not sure how we can expect manufacturers to ever admit that their products aren’t safe. See the tobacco industry and its continued effort to undermine unbiased and overwhelming scientific findings.

“As long as they’re used sensibly and according to the instructions.” – Here we go, the cop out, it’s our fault if we misuse the product…

“They argue that the research undertaken is not true to life, and that bees are subjected to higher exposure than they would be in the wild.” – So? It doesn’t follow that lower exposure is harmless.

“Some say that other factors, such as a parasite known as Varroa Mite, are more likely to be causing bee decline.” – Aye, and it’s seals who deplete the seas of fish if you believe the fishing industry (that’s what they claimed at some point anyway).

Let’s ban the darned things!

I think we can discount the views of manufacturers. Manufacturers tend to say that their products are safe.

Three neonicotinoids have been ‘banned’, but that is actually a restriction on what they can be used for rather than an outright ban. What are farmers doing? Are they using other neonicotinoids that have not been banned to control pests or perhaps organophosphates, which are much more harmful to humans.

We can choose not to use these pesticides in our own gardens and allotments, but how are farmers coping? Most of us are dependent on food we buy and we want it at an affordable price. I really think we could do with some input from farmers.

Sophie Gilbert says:
3 October 2014

It would indeed be interesting to hear what the farming community thinks. I worked for a wildlife conservation charity for 24 years and I know that farmers are far more interested in wildlife and its welfare that the general public might think. No doubt they find themselves in a predicament more often than they would like.

Mirjam Bout says:
26 September 2014

Hi, it’s has been scientifically proven that bees do’nt like wifi. There has been a test by a scientist who put a wifi router near a bee hive and most off the bees did not return. Everybody is talking about pesticides and it’s a good thing there are more and more being banned. But isn’t it distinct that since there is more and more wifi and Umts masts everywhere the bees are declining? Please take this with you in the discussion. Bees navigate on elektro magnetic feelds on earth, like lot’s of species of animals. All the man made elektro magnetic fields are disturbing natures way.

Thank you, Mirjam from Holland.

That is very interesting Mirjam. Do Cosumentenbund have any policies on this? Ufortunately I do not speak Dutch and it is very laborious to translate slowly through their site!

P.S. do you have any links in English : )?

Mirjam says:
27 September 2014

Hai Diesel,

Here are some links for you about this subject mosltly in english 🙂


And this very interesting movie on Youtube, very worthswhile to watch completely.


The subject is not widely spread yet, unfortunately.

Hope to hear your rseponse and foundings?


Mirjam says:
27 September 2014

Hasi Diesel, in the movie on Youtube there you can see a test with bees and wifi.

I try to garden in the ‘monty Don’ method, he said, encourage as many birds into your garden as you can, by planting bushes for nesting sites and cover, also by giving them winter feed. If you can do this they will take care of unwanted pests.
I believe very strongly that all neonicotinoids should be banned. I live next to arable fields and the farmers never seem to stop spraying one thing or another. At the moment we have potatoes, did you know that they are sprayed every 10 days with a fungicide, right through the season. Then just before they are harvested, the whole crop is sprayed with weed killer(as this apparently causes the potatoes to have a growth spurt) Something to think about next time we are enjoying our mash!

I am told half of the grain grown in the world goes to feed livestock. Thats a very inefficient way to make food. Eating less might be a start if industrial farming is poisoning the planet.

It is reasonably well-known that post WW2 Brtain was actually a very healthy country because people perforce eat less due to rationing. Given the choice of risking a planet without the vital pollinators I think most people would eat less …and save money in the process.

I think getting the pest- management side running without a last resort option might concentrate efforts much more effectively. The build up of neonics in the soil as illustrated in my first link at the start of the conversation shows that neonics are very potent and they last a lot longer than the manufacturers say they do.

An update from the Which? Gardening team – Bayer is to reformulate its Provado Ultimate Bug Killer for 2016 so that it no longer contains a neonicotinoid. Bayer said: ‘We are introducing this active ingredient [deltamethrin] as a proactive step in recognition of the likelihood that the regulations and legislation around neonicotinoids will alter.’

Thanks Lauren. As I understand it, neonicotinoids were introduced because of their low toxicity to humans and other animals. We now know about their impact on bees. I’m certainly not keen on continued use of neonicotinoids but there are already concerns about the safety of deltamethrin for humans. Hopefully the impact will be monitored carefully.

Conventional pesticides are always going to risk our health, because anything harmful to one form of life is likely to affect others (antibiotics are an exception to this rule). We should be putting into efforts to find biological control agents (effectively natural predators) that are effective and practical for use in agriculture.

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I’m well aware of this, Duncan. Pesticides used in agriculture and home gardeners are non-specific and will destroy beneficial species. That’s why biological control is a much better alternative, but we are a long way off tackling most of our problems with pests.

The UK government has authorised the emergency use of a type of pesticide almost entirely banned in the EU because of the harm it can cause bees. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-60579670

This is being done to protect the sugar beet crop, but perhaps most of us are already eating more sugar than is good for us.

While I entirely agree that we should substantially reduce the sugar content of the country’s diet for a number of reasons, I believe this should be done by education and example rather than through government intervention except perhaps where there is a general acceptance that the high sugar content of a product is exceptionally excessive, completely unnecessary, or is included mainly for addictive purposes. I think we have the right to have food that we like the taste of and should assume that the population is responsible in its consumption. The protection of children who are not able to make those judgments is also an important consideration.

Given the limited extent of sugar beet growing in the UK — it is largely confined to Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire near where the remaining sugar beet processing plants are located — I agree with Malcolm that a temporary use of the pesticide, under rigorous control, is manageable and relatively safe. For various logistical reasons, sugar beet production is generally large scale on extensive farms by well-resourced and competent organisations which have a close relationship with DEFRA and the sugar beet processing industry. It is not a small-holding crop and requires substantial resources to harvest economically.

Another aspect is that the crop is particularly suited to land with poor soil that is less suitable for grain or other vegetables. Sugar beet is a useful part of a crop rotation regime which avoids the pitfalls of continuous monoculture. Interspersed with other crops such as cereals that might have poor yields it can raise the overall productivity of the land. It will not generally be found on the lands of the eastern counties that are more fertile and better suited to more remunerative crops where bee pollination is more desirable. For these reasons I am sure that DEFRA have approached the decision responsibly and taken relevant considerations into account.

There are strong economic arguments for maintaining our levels of sugar beet production although no doubt alternatives [such as rape for vegetable oil] could be found over time, but the beet processing infrastructure exists and should be used. It also reduces the transport and cost implications of substituting sugar cane for beet and helps us become more sustainable in food production.

Despite education, many of us are still eating too much sugar. Education only helps those who are receptive. Stevia-based sweeteners are suitable alternatives to sugar for most purposes but have been heavily criticised.

Chemical pesticides are indiscriminate and we need to move away from their use.

This particular pesticide seems to be permitted for use only in a very controlled way, so is not indiscriminate. As John says this is a highly controlled crop; it reduces our need for imports and has beneficial side products including cattle feed.

Chemical pesticides ARE indiscriminate. That. is why effort has been put in to developing biological control agents.

I accept that too many are still consuming too much sugar and that the message is still not getting through where it would be most beneficial. Perhaps education can raise receptivity levels, but manufacturers and retailers must assist this. Or should the government intervene and introduce further controls? Maybe the rising cost of living might put a brake on over-consumption of over-sugared comestibles. Weaning the population off tastes they like in quantities they also like is no easy task.

Some progress has been made in providing sugar-free soft drinks but sugars in various guises are still widely used in foods. In many foods, sugars could be replaced partially or totally with sweeteners. Despite the sugar tax, sugar remains a cheap ingredient.

Parents have an important role in education. My mother told me that when I was a young child I liked sugar in my tea but that was discouraged and with very few exceptions I do not like sweet drinks.

Perhaps this illustrates the uphill struggle to “control” what people choose to consume:
”Our analysis looked at six popular categories of groceries – chocolate, crisps, fizzy drinks, fruit, meat and vegetables

Read more: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2022/03/which-groceries-have-inflation-busting-price-rises/ – Which?

No fish, bread, cereal, basic cooking ingredients…….. ah, and no alcohol.

Yes, not exactly a balanced examination of the issue.

I was surprised that M&S were not included in this survey. While they don’t sell so many branded goods overall, their fruit, meat and vegetables are equivalent to the produce in other supermarkets and their chocolate, crisps and fizzy drinks are comparable to branded lines. I would expect their turnover in these categories to be at least as high as Aldi’s and Lidl’s. The Coop, Farm Foods and Iceland should also be included in this kind of exercise because they are more likely to be used by shoppers on tight budgets.

Sugar beet is a valuable crop. What alternatives are there to prevent this particular aphid damage?

The aphids are a vector for transmission of the virus that damages sugar beet, though probably easier to tackle than the virus itself. If there was an easy solution I expect that it would have been adopted.

Although I am very much in favour of the UK being self-sufficient in food production it might be worth suspending sugar beet production until the current difficult conditions that have exacerbated the virus problem have ended or until virus-resistant beet are available. Part of our sugar supplies already come from sugar cane.

As we discussed before our bee population has been damaged by use of pesticides.

It seems around half the UK’s requirement is home grown and we also export. It also has useful by-products:

Let us hope, in the absence of any other controls, the particular neonicotinoid is properly used and controlled.

I hope so, but don’t forget that neonicotinoids were banned for a very good reason. One day we might develop sugar beet with natural resistance to the virus. I believe there is plenty of opportunity to reduce use of sugar in commercial foods. Why put sugar in soup, for goodness sake? Why condition kids to drink soft drinks full of sugar?

What we could do is to give incentives to plant wild flowers and plants much more widely to give food for pollinating insects. Including road verges, field margins, open spaces….. If we are to use insecticides, then more than balance the losses with new plants.

I don’t think that will help. From Syngenta, the manufacturer of thiamethoxam: “After insects contact the insecticide, feeding stops within a few hours and death generally occurs within 24 to 48 hours.”

I hope that Defra have made a balanced decision. Presumably the arguments for and against will be published somewhere. According to https://www.fwi.co.uk/arable/neonicotinoid-ban-harm-sugar-beet-yields-decades
bees don’t visit beet because it is a non-flowering plant; if that is the case then, providing insecticide is applied correctly bees may not be badly affected?

As for extensive wildflower planting “won’t help”, I was proposing a UK-wide initiative. As sugar beet growing is confined to parts of East Anglia and the East Midlands I suggest it will help with the national insect population.

A great deal has been published and the old article in Farmers Weekly is hardly a balanced view of current scientific understanding of this issue.

Perhaps we could reduce use of sugar in the UK, as I have suggested.

Do bees visit sugar beet, contrary to what the farmers claimed? If they do not then it seems a valid point to make

I think to develop this argument we must accept that our consumption of sugar will not be materially changed by any wishes we may have.

There was provision made to use thiamethoxam in 2021 but not granted as the forecast virus level was below the threshold. Sugar beet is used as a non-flowering crop so the danger to bees comes from flowering weeds within and around the crop areas; these are required to be controlled. There appears to be no alternative treatment. Just giving this for information and balance. The DEFRA statement is https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/neonicotinoid-product-as-seed-treatment-for-sugar-beet-emergency-authorisation-application/statement-on-the-decision-to-issue-with-strict-conditions-emergency-authorisation-to-use-a-product-containing-a-neonicotinoid-to-treat-sugar-beet

Then we need herbicides to control the flowering weeds. Thiamethoxam persists in the environment, polluting soil and water courses.

Thiamethoxam is used as a seed treatment. The arguments for its controlled use are given in the DEFRA document and the risks given. Work is said to be in hand to develop alternative controls and the emergency use of thiomethoxam is likely to be limited.

If we can all plant a tree for the jubilee (treebilee) then we could also encourage a national programme of wildflower and similar planting to help our birds and insects.

malcolm r says: Today 10:25

Thiamethoxam is used as a seed treatment. The arguments for its controlled use are given in the DEFRA document and the risks given. Work is said to be in hand to develop alternative controls and the emergency use of thiomethoxam is likely to be limited.

Isn’t the more serious issue the fact that we don’t understand all the risks? If history has taught us anything it’s that risks often only manifest themselves quite some time after the product was cleared for use.

Thalidomide and Tobacco are just two examples of ‘safe’ products later being discovered to be anything but.

Hundreds of agricultural, gardening and even household chemicals have been banned over the years. Products such as Weedol have retained their name but the main active ingredient has been replaced – twice I believe.

The sugar beet problem might be overcome by selection of resistant varieties, and the potential for achieving resistance by gene editing is being investigated.

And, until then, we need to protect a valuable crop by other means.

I merely linked above to the DEFRA statement (fairly comprehensive) so that interested people could look at their arguments, not only the BBC report. As many farmers will rely on pollinating insects for the success of their crops I assume their views will carry weight, both in the farming lobby and with DEFRA.

The decision to permit ’emergency use’ of the product in question has already been made. Farmers have a long history of opposing restrictions on use of herbicides and pesticides even when there are long-term benefits. Recall the case of metaldehyde slug killer.

Malcolm — Thank you for posting that fuller document. I didn’t read DEFRA’s statement when you first reported it but it seemed to me to be one of the best explanations from a government department of action it is taking, the reasons why, and how it came to its decision. I am used to the usual government press releases full of hype and spin but this was a model of public information. I think DEFRA’s justification for the emergency authorisation of application of the pesticide to sugar beet crops is properly considered, sound and proportionate, accompanied by sensible controls and conditions.

My concern is that it makes too many assumptions. Sentences such as “The decision-taker should still, however, take account of the overall objectives of the regulation, including securing a high level of protection for human health, animal health and the environment while improving agricultural production.” are worded ambiguously and seem lacking in enforcement or monitoring.

I’m unsure where we should be going, however; I suspect the time may be approaching when genetic manipulation may be appropriate. And that also carries risks, of course. Recombinant DNA is not a new science and may offer a safer way forward.

I suppose regulations that exist for a foreseen occurrence that is unknown by type or scale need to be fairly flexible and to some extent vague to give decision-makers sufficient scope to make the best judgment in the prevailing circumstances. I know that sounds like a Sir Humphrey argument but it might just be fair.

I looks to me as though DEFRA and the industry are putting down markers that genetic manipulation of crops is considered to be the way forward. I don’t know what the public reaction would be to GM for sugar beet; possibly, because the plant is not directly consumed without extensive processing, it would not provoke much objection, but the risk with GM is potential crossover to other plants.