- The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently banned 12 products containing neonicotinoid, a pesticide that functions similarly to nicotine.
- Neonicotinoids have been linked to impaired memory, movement, and death in bees, which are critical to the world’s crop production.
- Seven of the recently banned pesticides are used to protect crops like soybeans, cotton, and corn from diseases and pests.
- The EPA ban represents a win for environmentalists, but it leaves 47 neonicotinoid-based products on the market.
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Give a bee neonicotinoids, and it can become addicted.
The pesticide, whose name literally means "nicotine-like," has been used commercially since the 1980s as a way to protect crops from being destroyed by insects. But it was never meant to hurt bees, which are vital to producing crops such as fruits, vegetables, and almonds.
In bees, the effects of neonicotinoids are similar to those of nicotine in humans. Not only is the pesticide detrimental to their health, but bees also tend to prefer it to their own food source. Bees that are exposed to neonicotinoids can experience problems with their central nervous systems, often resulting in impaired memory, movement, and even death.
For years, beekeepers have warned that the pesticides are killing their hives. Any major decline in honeybee numbers could have severe implications for the human diet, since bees pollinate about a third of the world’s crops.
Recently, concerns about this threat translated into action in the US.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced a ban on 12 neonicotinoid pesticides from three agro-chemical companies: Syngenta, Valent, and Bayer. Seven of these pesticides are used as a protective coating for crops like soybeans, cotton, and corn.
When farmers use neonicotinoids on their crops, the pesticides can leech into water supplies, which then get absorbed by flowers that serve as vital food sources for bees. In 2017, beekeepers in the US reported losing about 40% of their hives — a trend that has continued in years since.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Of the list of EPA-banned pesticides, six are made by Syngenta. These products contain the active ingredient thiamethoxam, a neonicotinoid that can cause bees to become hyperactive in the short term and can impair their motor function in the long term. High doses of thiamethoxam might also make honeybees less tolerant to a virus called Chronic Bee Paralysis, which can kill them.
The other EPA-banned pesticides (two from Bayer and four from Valent) contain clothianidin, a neonicotinoid that’s thought to be slightly more toxic than thiamethoxam. One of Bayer’s now-banned products is used as a protective coating for potatoes, while the other is a household rose- and flower-care product. In a statement, Bayer’s vice president and associate general counsel, Kristine Kring, said those products aren’t sold in the US and have "little or no commercial significance" for Bayer.
Studies have shown that clothianidin impairs a bee colony’s immune response and ability to reproduce. Exposure to clothianidin especially threatens the lives of queen bees, which are the backbone of a hive. A recent study published in the journal Nature Communications found that bee colonies in clothianidin-treated fields saw up to 66% fewer males than colonies that weren’t exposed to the chemical, and up to 74% fewer queen bees.
Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images
Clothianidin can also lead to colony collapse disorder, in which the majority of worker bees die out and leave behind a queen. A 2017 study in the journal Science found that exposure to clothianidin also makes colonies less likely to clear out dead or sick bees from their hives, which means more bees can become infected over time.
But agro-chemical companies like Syngenta have argued that without neonicotinoids, crops would more easily fall victim to disease or pests. They might also experience water loss, since a pesticide coating helps seal in moisture.
While the EPA ban represents a landmark win for environmentalists, it’s still the result of a compromise. The decision follows a December 2018 settlement in which Syngenta, Valent, and Bayer volunteered to give up their rights to sell, use, and distribute the 12 pesticide products. This leaves 47 neonicotinoid-based products on the market.
In a statement to Business Insider, Bayer said the settlement "represents a big win for growers, sound science, and our regulatory system."
But the battle between agrochemical companies and environmentalists isn’t over. The 47 neonicotinoids allowed by the EPA must be re-registered by 2022, giving environmentalists a few more years to push for a total ban.
The European Union has already banned almost all outdoor uses of neonicotinoids following a 2018 food safety report, which determined that the pesticide poses a risk to bees.
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