By Daniel Raichel
As massive numbers of bees and other pollinators keep dying across the globe, study after study continues to connect these deaths to neonicotinoid pesticides (A.K.A. “neonics”). With the science piling up, and other countries starting to take critical pollinator-saving action, here’s a quick primer on all things neonics:
1. What are neonics?
Neonics are neurotoxic insecticides, meaning they are pesticides designed to kill insects by attacking their nerve cells. Neonics permanently bind to nerve cells, overstimulating and destroying them. Insects poisoned with neonics often exhibit uncontrollable shaking or twitching, paralysis, and—eventually—death.
Neonics are also “systemic,” meaning they dissolve in water and are absorbed by plants, making the plant itself—including its nectar, pollen and fruit—toxic. Neonics are often applied as a “drench” to a plant’s roots, or as a coating on a plant’s seed, which the plant then soaks up as it grows. The levels applied can often be so high that they make the plant toxic to insects for years after the initial treatment.
2. Where are neonics used?
Everywhere. Neonics are the most popular insecticides in the U.S. and can be found in lawn and garden bug sprays, flea and tick treatments for pets and livestock, and food grown in farm fields across the country. As this map* shows, the neonic imidacloprid is used just about every place that people grow crops. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg—the map doesn’t account for non-agricultural uses (e.g., golf courses, lawns, gardens) or the four other neonic chemicals also extensively used in the U.S.
3. Do neonics harm bees?
Absolutely. Neonics are designed to kill insects, and bees are insects. A large and growing body of research shows that neonic use is a leading cause of the massive bee die-offs around the globe that threaten our food security, agricultural economy and environment. Bees at risk include not only commercial honey bees, but the more than 4,000 species of native bees that live in the U.S., like the rusty patched bumble bee or the bees seen here in every color of the rainbow.
4. Do neonics harm other wildlife?
Yes. Neonic use has been shown to cause significant losses of aquatic invertebrates, a critical food source to birds and fish. Neonic use has also been linked with documented losses of bird and butterfly populations.
5. Do neonics contaminate our water?
Yes. Neonics can persist in soil for a long time, where rain or irrigation water easily carries them into surrounding lakes, streams or sources for drinking water. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has found that neonics contaminate waterbodies nationwide, often at levels that harm critical aquatic insects and other wildlife. That’s no surprise given how wastefully neonics are often applied. For example, when neonics are applied as seed treatment, only about 5 percent of the pesticide is absorbed by the plant at best—the other ~95 percent stays in the soil. And with up to 100 percent of conventional corn and 50 percent of soybean seed now treated with neonics, it’s not hard to guess how they keep ending up in our water.
6. Are neonics in our food?
Yes. Neonic residues are found in 86% of honey in the U.S. and also in blueberries, cranberries, peaches and other foods popular with kids and adults alike. Because neonics are actually inside the fruit, vegetables, and other foods we eat, they can’t be washed off.
7. Is there concern that neonics may be harming our health?
Yes. Neonics attack parts of insect nerve cells that are similar to those found in humans, making researchers and health experts concerned that what’s bad for bees could be bad for us too. In particular, emerging research suggests that exposure to neonics in the womb or early in life could be linked with developmental defects, including autism, heart deformations, muscle tremors, and memory loss.
8. What is our federal government doing about neonics?
Not much. Several years back, the U.S. EPA introduced the “bee hazard” icon and limited restrictions for some neonic products, but these baby steps have failed to stem massive bee and pollinator losses. EPA has also long been studying the impacts of neonics through its “registration review” process. Although these reviews could result in life-saving protections for pollinators, don’t hold your breath—EPA just quietly pushed back the deadlines for their completion, and isn’t expected to take needed action anyway while still under Trump and Andrew Wheeler’s direction.
9. What have other countries done?
A: Other countries are moving to ban outdoor uses of neonics. In 2018, The European Union voted to completely ban all outdoor uses of three neonics, citing their impacts to honey bees. Canada recently followed suit, recommending that the country similarly phase out all outdoor uses of the same neonics in 3-5 years.
10. What should replace neonics if we limited their use?
For the most part, nothing. Neonics are often used where they simply aren’t effective. In 2014, EPA found that neonic soybean seed treatments “likely provide $0 in benefits to growers,” yet up to half of all conventional soybean seed is still neonic-treated. Other recent research shows neonics to be similarly ineffective on corn, yet up to 100 percent of conventional corn seed gets a neonic treatment. These uses account for the vast bulk of neonics entering the environment and—since they don’t work—they don’t need replacing. Agroecological practices—like diverse crop rotations, cover cropping, and introducing natural enemies of crop pests (AKA “good bugs”)—can eliminate the need for other neonic uses. In those instances where an insecticide is needed, less harmful substitutes for neonics are available.
*This map is from 2014, the last year USGS included neonic-treated seeds in its annual pesticide survey (even though treated seed usage has not diminished since). To understand how massive treated seed use is, compare this map to the 2015 map, and see the world of difference for yourself.