Neonics – becoming a bee in a bonnet?

Bumblebee on oilseed rapeThe response of some conservation NGOs to the news that Defra has given emergency authorisation of a neonicotinoid seed treatment for sugar beet in 2021 has been scare-mongering and emotive. In our view Defra’s decision is proportionate – and here is why.

There is evidence that the widespread use of neonicotinoids has affected bee populations, both through increased mortality and affecting behaviour patterns, besides impacting on non-target species through leaching into watercourses and their persistence in the environment generally (see our position statement and briefing). Their use was widespread due to their application as a seed treatment, reducing the need for farmers to use sprays at crop establishment and emergence, across a range of crop types. In 2008 around 80% of insecticide-coated seeds sold worldwide were coated with neonics.

For some crops, such as sugar beet, their use as a seed dressing is critical to allow successful crop establishment; beet is precision sown, and achieving an optimum plant population is a key requirement to maximising yield and thereby resource use efficiency. In cereals this is less important since plant density only affects yields at very low populations and pests are not generally a serious problem early in the growing cycle.

The total ban on their use, therefore, is a blunt instrument that fails to acknowledge their value in the cultivation of some crops: sugar beet is one and kale, widely used in wildlife seed mixes, is another.

Unlike oilseed rape, which is now proving impossible to grow in some areas – replaced, perhaps, by palm oil grown on land cleared from rainforest – sugar beet doesn’t flower as part of its cropping cycle and therefore the risk of insects and bees being exposed to the neonicotinoid via its pollen is nil. Although secondary impacts can occur via leaching and absorption into field margins or flowering weeds growing in the crop, this can be minimised through appropriate usage guidance. But the impacts of aphid infestation and, more importantly, the virus they transmit means that the seed treatment provides significant protection to the crop.

Given that crop losses greatly increase the carbon footprint of growing the crop, since this remains largely unchanged, estimates of sugar beet yields being reduced by 20-25% is significant, as the carbon footprint will increase substantially. In addition, there will be excess nitrogen left in the soil that has not been taken up by the crop. As sugar beet is harvested in the autumn, with the following crop often not established until the spring, any excess nitrogen will be leached out, negatively impacting on water quality. Defra’s decision, therefore, is an example of where a comparative risk assessment has identified that the use of a neonicotinoid seed treatment for sugar beet is beneficial given its growing habits and the need to protect yields.

KaleWhilst kale is less widely grown, it is a key component of many wildlife seed mixes. Kale flowers in the second year after sowing, so if the seed is protected with a seed coating it is unlikely to persist long enough to be transferred to bees and other insects at flowering. GWCT research has shown that kale seed is “the king of wildlife crops”, especially if it is left into a second year. It provides warm cover, is very hardy, and produces stacks of small seeds that many birds love to eat. However, without the protection from flea beetle devastation that a neonic seed coating provides, it is difficult to establish. We would argue, therefore, that Defra should consider allowing a derogation for its establishment too.

However, in our view, as a blanket ban on pesticides such as neonicotinoids can have unintended consequences, such as farmers seeking alternatives or changing their cropping, behaviour change is more appropriate to ensure a pragmatic and balanced approach to their use. The Voluntary Initiative was set up to encourage partnership between government, farmers, NGOs and the manufacturers and distributors of crop protection products. Given that chemical regulations are now back under domestic control and there is a perceptible change in the mood of the industry to embrace further sustainable crop production methods, now is the time for government to use the Voluntary Initiative to change farmer behaviour and to marry the need to support domestic production whilst encouraging alternative solutions to minimising their overall environmental impacts.

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New blog to follow-up

at 10:26 on 04/02/2021 by Rob Beeson

We have just published a new blog in response to some of the comments this blog generated. You can read it here: https://www.gwct.org.uk/blogs/news/2021/february/neonics-%E2%80%93-becoming-a-bee-in-a-bonnet-the-next-instalment/

Neonicotinoid seed coating for sugar beet

at 14:52 on 22/01/2021 by Gavin Meerwald

This single sentence tells you how knee-jerk the reaction is to the (extremely targeted) use of this pesticide. "sugar beet doesn’t flower as part of its cropping cycle and therefore the risk of insects and bees being exposed to the neonicotinoid via its pollen is nil." Surely these conservation NGOs could use some basic common sense.


at 14:36 on 22/01/2021 by Curt and Betsey Gesch

Dear Friends, I respectfully suggest that neonicotinoids are dangerous to wildlife no matter how they are used. Licensing them simply de-incensitizes companies and farmers from looking for other ways to address soil and plant health. Our experience in Canadian life is that use of chemicals such as neonicotinoids means the demise not only of insects but also of a complex ecosystem including grey partridge and pheasant. A more holistic approach to soil and plant health will lead to a a healthier ecosystem as numerous regenerative ranchers and farmers have demonstrated again and again.


at 13:46 on 22/01/2021 by Burwood-Taylor, Roddy

Excellent article explaining that people who do not know what they are talking about should keep quiet!


at 16:38 on 21/01/2021 by Peter Thompson

I was interested to read this blog, especially the call for Neonics to be allowed once more as a seed dressing on Kale within wildlife seed mixes. You state “Whilst kale is less widely grown, it is a key component of many wildlife seed mixes. Kale flowers in the second year after sowing, so if the seed is protected with a seed coating it is unlikely to persist long enough to be transferred to bees and other insects at flowering”. As the GWCT is always led by science, I assume that you have looked at this and can show us the results? The GWCT policy statement on Neonics ( https://www.gwct.org.uk/policy/position-statements/neonicotinoids/ ) reads as follows: “However, in some soil conditions, lengthy half-lives have been reported for both imidacloprid (100-1,000 days) and clothianidin (150-7,000 days). It is therefore difficult to predict for how long neonics are present in any environment, but this can be for long periods of time, and concentrations may gradually increase, accumulating with yearly applications. Some evidence suggests that nearby non-crop plants such as wildflowers may take up neonics from this source, thus potentially increasing overall exposure for bees and other non-target insects”. Within this statement you suggest that nearby wildflowers could potentially pick up some contamination. Of course, seed-dressed Kale planted within a wild bird seed mix, would be part of a “mix” drilled amongst other plants making up this mix, many being annual flowering plants or weeds. This is important as studies of the uptake of neonicotinoid seed dressings into the target crop suggest that only between 2% and 20% of the active ingredient is absorbed by the crop, so that by far the bulk of the active ingredient, typically more than 90%, enters the soil. I would like to remind the Trust that the amounts of Neonics used in seed dressings are tiny, but it is exactly this use that has been found to contaminate hedgerow plants, wildflowers, soils and watercourses. One teaspoon of Neonic is enough to kill 1.25 billion honeybees. Maybe the Trust should be taking a more careful look at its call for Defra to consider allowing a derogation for Kale seed to be dressed with Neonics. That is, unless the Trust can show those of us who are worried, clear evidence that it indeed safe.

Your article "Neonics – becoming a bee in a bonnet?"

at 14:54 on 19/01/2021 by Prof Dave Goulson, University of Sussex

For an alternative view, and an argument as to why the government should not allow the return of neonicotinoid pesticides in sugar beet, see the blog here: https://www.wcl.org.uk/poisoning-the-environment-to-make-ourselves-ill.asp In short, we are allowing farmers to use a pesticide that we know does environmental harm, to prop up production of a product that has zero nutritional value, and is the main driver of the obesity epidemic that our government estimates costs the economy £27 billion pa. Sugar beet fields would be much better used for growing healthy veg (which we largely import at present). As for arguing for the use of neonics on kale, I suspect that the author of your article is unaware that neonicotinoids in perennial plants can be detected several years later. Bees are very fond of kale flowers, and so will be attracted to a feast of neurotoxic nectar when the kale comes in to bloom.

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