Neonicotinoid insecticides and bees
Neonicotinoids are a group of chemicals used as insecticides. Studies looking at the effects of neonicotinoids on bees have been widely reported.
The Government is fully aware of the importance of bees and of the economic benefits they bring as pollinators. Defra supports beekeepers by:
- Helping them look after their hives to reduce pest and disease risks
- Working in partnership with beekeeping groups on a ten year plan to protect and improve the health of honeybees in England and Wales
- Funding research on pest and disease management to help achieve a sustainable and thriving population of honey bees for pollination and honey production
Several studies have suggested that low doses of neonicotinoids could have sub-lethal effects on bees with consequences for bee populations. Defra takes any threat to bees very seriously and has consistently made it clear that it will restrict the use of these products if the evidence shows the need.
Defra has kept evidence on neonicotinoids under open-minded scrutiny, assessing new studies as they emerge and considering how they alter the overall picture. We have taken advice from the independent expert Advisory Committee on Pesticides, which has considered the evidence on several occasions. The Committee advised, following its latest meeting on 29 January this year, that there were grounds for a review of neonicotinoid authorisations under pesticides legislation. This work is being taken forward by the HSE’s Chemicals Regulation Directorate, as the UK pesticides regulator.
We have not simply assessed evidence produced by others. Independent experts advised that there was a need for further experimental evidence on the issue of whether bees may face harmful exposure to neonicotinoids in field conditions. We therefore commissioned our own research, which was completed in March 2013, to explore further the impacts of neonicotinoids on bumble bees in field conditions
- Effects of neonicotinoid seed treatments on bumble bee colonies under field conditions (Fera website)
Following this work, we have produced an assessment of the key evidence about neonicotinoids and bees to help inform national and international considerations of this issue. The assessment cannot exclude rare effects of neonicotinoids on bees in the field. However, it suggests that effects on bees do not occur under normal circumstances.
We continue to build our understanding of these issues. We are completing research to understand what levels of pesticide residues and disease in honey bees are normal and have commissioned a longer-term project to quantify the actual exposure of wild bumblebees to sub-lethal doses of neonicotinoid insecticides in UK landscapes.
We are also working to understand better the wider environmental and agronomic implications of possible restrictions, including the consequences of alternative pesticides or pest control measures being used.
As in the UK, consideration of this issue in Europe has been running for some time. Considerable efforts have been put into designing an updated risk assessment process for the effects of pesticides on bees and UK experts have contributed to this work. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which is leading this work, expects to complete it by the summer.
On the instructions of the European Commission, the EFSA has considered the existing data on the three main neonicotinoids against the emerging new risk assessment. They published Conclusions in January which indicated, unsurprisingly, that the old data did not fully address the new requirements.
The Commission have drawn up plans for a ban on the use of three neonicotinoids on a long list of crops. Defra is approaching this proposal in the same way as we have approached the issue domestically. We are therefore urging the Commission to complete their scientific assessment, taking account of our new research, and to assess the impacts of action so that the measures proposed are proportionate to the risks identified.
All pesticides, including neonicotinoids, are tightly regulated. The risk assessment process, set out in European legislation, looks in detail at the risks to honey bees, considering a range of factors including methods of application and examining both lethal and sub-lethal effects.
The regulatory process is constantly updated so that it advances with scientific knowledge and the authorisations of pesticide chemicals are reviewed regularly to ensure that they meet the latest standards. Those authorisations that do not are restricted or withdrawn.
The neonicotinoid insecticides meet the standards set by the regulatory system and legal restrictions are in place to limit the exposure of bees to these products.
- A Code of Practice also provides guidance to pesticide users on minimising the exposure of bees