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Are neonicotinoids distracting us from the bigger picture?

Posted by on April 25, 2013

by Rebecca Nesbit, Society of Biology

The much awaited vote by EU member states on the potential neonicotinoid ban takes place on Monday. There has been strong environmental lobbying to encourage Environment Minister Owen Patterson to vote in favour of a ban, but to what extent is the fate of bees really hanging on this decision?

When you look at the possible environmental outcomes of a ban, the scientific evidence in favour of one remains equivocal, and the reasons for bee decline are very complex. Field experiments to determine how much of an effect neonicotinoids actually have in the wild are notoriously difficult to do.

Neonicotinoids do pose a potential threat to bees: it appears that the low levels of neonicotinoids in pollen and nectar, whilst not necessarily killing bees, can affect their behaviour.  However, there are also potential environmental risks of banning neonicotinoids. For example, neonicotinoids are applied to the seeds, and a ban would lead to increased spraying of other pesticides, each with their own influences.

There is also a danger that this debate is taking over and we are losing focus on other problems affecting bees. If you search #bees on twitter today the vast majority of tweets also contain the #neonicotinoids hashtag. If the ban goes through, the problems of lack of forage and disease won’t have been solved.

Our agricultural system is largely unsustainable, and we need to address this in many ways. The problems go much deeper than neonicotinoids.

I am extremely concerned about the potential damaging effects of neonicotinoids, and indeed all pesticides, on bees and other wildlife. But we need to feed people, and we shouldn’t over-simplify the challenges of how we are going to do this.

I wish that banning neonicotinoids was a magic bullet for bees, but the answers are far more complex. The solutions to feeding a growing population in a sustainable manner will require behavioural change from us and more investment in research, and the adoption of new improved practices.

Neonicotinoids change bee behaviour, but let’s make sure the debate doesn’t change our behaviour by making us forget the bigger picture. Let’s use the debate to remind us the importance of funding for agricultural research.


Hear more from experts on the Sense About Science website.

4 Responses to Are neonicotinoids distracting us from the bigger picture?

  1. Rebecca Nesbit

    The ban has now been announced, and here is the Society of Biology’s reaction:

    and the reactions of various scientists

  2. Jackie

    DEFRA has recently released a report of the evidence on Bees and Neonicotinoids – see