Pesticide vs Pollinator

The Case Against Neonics

What are neonicotinoids (‘neonics’ for short) and why should we care? They’re the most widely used pesticides in the world – but neonics don’t just kill pests, they kill beneficial insects too. The insecticide is coated on seeds and stays in the plant as it grows. The poison can remain in pollen, nectar, soil and water for years, killing bees, butterflies, birds, worms and microbes. The insecticide that is supposed to protect our food crops is actually a threat to the crop pollinators and the creatures that make soils healthy. The EU has put restrictions on neonics but they are still freely used used throughout New Zealand – most of our maize and grass seed is covered with the poison at planting – and are sold in garden centres.

The Evidence

Here’s what we know for sure:

Pollinators are vital for our crops.
Neonic insecticides kill pollinators.
Pollinators are declining worldwide (especially bees).
Neonics are on the rise worldwide.

Research is increasingly showing it’s ‘highly likely’ there’s a connection between these facts. For example, a new ‘meta’ report combined 800 research papers from 20 years and concluded neonics are a key factor in the decline of bees and are damaging the wider environment. A big picture is emerging although research is often hampered by insecticide manufacturers who withhold risk-assessment data (as do pharmaceutical companies with drug data).

There is no doubt that these systemic insecticides are typically present in pollen and nectar. – Royal Society Report on Neonicotinoids, 2014

The Accused
The new neonic insecticides are much more toxic than DDT and they are a non-targeted pest control – they poison every little thing. Neonicotinoids contain nicotine which acts as a nerve poison in insects – honey bees’ finely-tuned behaviours are disrupted by sub-lethal doses. The insecticide is usually coated on crop seeds and as the plant grows the poison spreads to all plant parts (it’s systemic). Pollinating insects are exposed to the poison in pollen, nectar, sap, soil, water, and dust from machinery. They are much more persistent than other insecticide types: neonics create a toxic plant; they remain in the soil for years; and they contaminate water.

Far from protecting food production, the use of neonics is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it, imperilling the pollinators, habitat engineers and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem.’– National Centre for Scientific Research, France, 2014

The Accomplices
Neonic sprays are also sold to the public in garden centres, and are used in pet flea treatments and on ornamental plant seeds. The brazen brand names of the poison in NZ include: Advantage, Merit, Admire, Transform, and Confidor. Our environmental agency (EPA) has yet to restrict the use of neonics here, but Placemakers and The Warehouse have recently withdrawn the sprays from their stores, to their credit. When I asked the EPA about the new ‘big picture’ report on neonics they replied it contained ‘no new information’ (I think they mean, no new research).

Given the toxic persistence of neonics in plants and soil, why are they so popular with farmers? Because they are a quick killer of many pests, thus improving crop yields. But insect pollinators also improve crop yields and quality; and are a fundamental part of nature’s biodiversity. Which is of more lasting value to agriculture, neonicotinoids, or the pollinator ecosystem? Is it worth the risk to keep using neonics so casually? To do nothing is the most risky option; at the very least we should restrict their use in home gardens. New Zealand is especially vulnerable to the loss of pollinators – we have few native pollinators and feral honey bees are now almost extinct – and our agriculture relies heavily on pollination.

Neonicotinoids are highly likely to be responsible for triggering CCD [colony collapse disorder] in honey bee hives. – Harvard study, 2014

The Victims
There are many causes for the decline in pollinators: insecticides, loss of wild habitat, monocultural farming, spread of varroa mite and viruses, and climate change, all of which stress pollinators. Research studies continue to find other victims of neonics, including worms and butterflies – the latest is that the insecticide has been reducing bird populations in the Netherlands. And yes, insecticide residues end up in our food too. The government randomly tests food for ‘agricultural compounds’ – mostly insecticides and fungicides. (Read the report here). Here’s a result from the last survey:

The highest number of agricultural compound residues were in: strawberries (15 different residues); cucumber (14); bran flake cereal, muesli and grapes (12); pears and takeaway chicken (10); celery, courgette, raisins/sultanas (9).

Closing Argument
Over-reliance on broad-spectrum insecticides can (as with some antibiotics) lead to resistance and weakening of natural systems. Worst of all is that neonics are applied to seed as a preventative – just in case pests attack later – a wasteful and environmentally damaging practice. But are there alternatives to neonics? Yes, there are many other means of pest control available. The least we can do is to use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) which still uses pesticides, but in conjunction with less toxic controls.

It is high time we returned to IPM – an approach focussed on minimising insecticide use, maximising the number of biological control agents, using cultural controls such as crop rotations, and monitoring pest numbers so that chemical controls only need be applied when there is a problem.”– Prof David Goulson

This is not about banning all insecticides, it’s about phasing out an especially damaging type of insecticide, neonicotoids. Ultimately we also need to work towards a more eco-freindly system – instead of blitzing every bug we should encourage predatory and parasitic insects to do the job for us; and support healthy soil fauna. Insecticides are replaceable, pollinators are not.


ICUN Report

Harvard Research

Royal Society Report

Total Diet Survey

Alternative Pest Control