Neonics and the decline of pollinators

by Bruce Jackson, Senior Engagement Manager at GES

There have been several studies in recent years [1], [2] confirming a decline in bee populations both in Europe, the US and across the world. It has been referred to as colony collapse disorder, but this refers to ‘societal’ bees only, and does not reflect the reported decline in solitary bee species.

The decline in bee numbers is important because, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, “of the 100 crop species which provide 90 per cent of global food, 71 are pollinated by bees”[3].

Bee pollinating almonds
Bee pollinating almonds

The decline in bee numbers can be attributed to numerous factors: climate change, parasites, pathogens, habitat-loss, and pesticide use. Habitat loss and the introduction of large monoculture fields has certainly impacted solitary bee species. However, studies have shown the large-scale use of neonicotinoid-containing pesticides (commonly referred to as ‘neonics’) detrimentally impact bee-colonies [4].

Neonics are a class of neuro-active insecticide, effectively a neurotoxin, which acts upon the central nervous system, causing nervous stimulation, disorientation and blocked receptors – the effects are irreversible. They affect a bee’s behaviour such as foraging and navigation, but can also cause death. Their use is more problematic because bees have been observed to prefer plants with neonics present than those without.

The first commercial neonic, imidacloprid, was patented in 1985 and its usage became widespread during the 1990s with two further neonics (clothianidin and thiamethoxam) entering the market in 2002. Pesticide manufacturers argue that the studies show a correlation rather than a causation between pollinator decline and neonic use, and point to the other factors listed above. But the evidence has been enough for the European Union to impose a partial ban in 2013, whilst France and Italy suspended their use and Canada is currently undertaking research in support of a potential ban.

So, what would happen without bees and has this already happened anywhere? In the Szechuan province of China, bees have been wiped out completely, which has been attributed to the widespread use of pesticides during the 1980s. The result? Local pear orchards are being pollinated by hand[5]. One study estimates that should this happen in the US it could cost up to USD 90 billion a year to pollinate the existing pollinator-reliant crops. The cost to the wider environment is potentially incalculable.

So, the decline of bee populations may have major social, environmental and commercial ramifications. Bees are responsible for pollinating some 80 per cent of flowering plants including agricultural fruit and vegetables. A report by Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services states “animal pollination is directly responsible for between 5-8 per cent of global agricultural production by volume, amounting to between USD 235 billion and USD 577 billion worth of annual output”. The economic impact on certain industry sectors such as food retailers and cosmetics have yet to be fully assessed.

Investors may wish to actively engage with pesticide manufacturers that produce the most widely-used neonics, and encourage the companies to:

* release all their research on neonics; and

* develop an environmentally-friendly alternative supported by publicly-available, comprehensive studies.


[1] UN’s the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES): The assessment report on pollinators, pollination and food production”, February 2016.

[2] United States Department of Agriculture: “Honey Bee Colonies” May 2016.

[3] UNEP, Global Honey Bee Colony Disorders and Other Threats to Insect Pollinators (Nairobi, 2010); Michelle Allsopp and others, Plan Bee — Living Without Pesticides: Moving Towards Ecological Farming (Amsterdam, Greenpeace, 2014).

[4] Woodcock, Ben et al: “Impacts of neonicotinoid use on long-term population changes in wild bees in England” Nature Communications. Published online: 16 August 2016

[5] Adams, Case: “Is Hand-Pollinating by Chinese Farmers Bee’s Canary in the Coal Mine?”

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