Seeds That Poison

Advocating for the removal of bee-toxic pesticides and the transition to organic policies and practices.

The accumulated studies and data have found that honey bees and other pollinators, such as native bees, butterflies and birds, are in decline. Scientists studying the issue have identified several factors that are contributing to bee decline, including pesticides, parasites, improper nutrition, stress, and habitat loss. (See Beyond Pesticides’ What the Science Shows.)

Pesticides have been identified in the independent scientific literature as a major contributing factor. Pesticides in the neonicotinoid (neonic) chemical class have been singled out as major suspects due to their widespread use as seed coatings, high toxicity to bees, “systemic” nature --neonic chemicals move through the plant’s vascular system and are expressed in pollen, nectar, and guttation droplets-- and persistence. Neonicotinoids are highly toxic to honey bees and, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acknowledges this fact, little is being done at the federal level to protect bees and other pollinators from these pesticides.

Neonicotinoid-coated seeds
The majority of corn, soybeans, and other food crop seeds are coated with toxic pesticides. Many seeds and flowers marketed as “bee-friendly” at garden centers are also contaminated with systemic chemicals. These pesticides emerge from the seed through the plant, and invade soil biology and surrounding waterways, causing indiscriminate poisoning and contamination.

Uses of Neonicotinoids
The most commonly used seed coatings are neonicotinoid insecticides. While seed coatings represent a significant use of these insecticides, they can also be applied through granules, foliar spray, or drenches around plant roots. With every type of use, neonic chemicals work their way into plants, their pollen, nectar, and sap droplets, making them poisonous to pollinators who feed on them. Birds, bees, butterflies and bats are indiscriminately poisoned when they forage in contaminated fields.

Hazards of Neonicotinoids
Since the introduction of systemic neonicotinoid pesticides, both honey bees and wild, native pollinators have experienced ongoing catastrophic declines. In some years, such as the 2015-2016 season, beekeepers experienced an average of 44% colony loss, with some beekeepers losing their entire business. The scientific literature shows that the use of these chemicals results in exposed pollinators suffering impaired foraging, navigational, and learning behavior, as well as increased susceptibility to mites and pathogens. This threatens the sustainability of the global food supply, particularly nutrient dense fruiting foods that depend on bees and other pollinators. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of global food, 71 are pollinated by bees.

Neonicotinoids also contaminate over half of urban and agricultural streams across the U.S. and Puerto Rico, according to a report by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) that expands on a previous study finding the chemicals in Midwest waterways. These insecticides are very highly toxic to a range of aquatic organisms, including shrimp and aquatic insects. Reproductive effects are observed in several freshwater and estuarine/marine invertebrates. Developmental effects occur in benthic invertebrates living at the bottom of waterbodies, including the sediment surface and subsurface. In the regulatory arena at EPA, alarms began to go off when the agency found in its 2017 risk assessment for imidacloprid, the most widely used neonicotinoid, “[C]oncentrations of imidacloprid detected in streams, rivers, lakes and drainage canals routinely exceed acute and chronic toxicity endpoints derived for freshwater invertebrates.” (USEPA. 2017) (See Beyond Pesticides report Poisoned Waterways: The Same Pesticide that Is Killing Bees Is Destroying Life in the Nation’s Streams, Rivers, and Lakes.)

The use of these chemicals is not only dangerous to the environment, but puts farmers at economic risk. Research finds that their use can undermine pest control efforts and cause “trophic cascades.” One study found that when applied to seeds in an attempt to prevent pest slugs from eating seedlings, slugs were unaffected by neonicotinoid toxicity. However, they accumulated the chemicals in their body, and their main predator beetles died in consuming them. By creating an ecological imbalance, neonicotinoids allowed the pest slugs to proliferate.

A 2014 EPA analysis found that neonicotinoid seed treatments provide little to no benefit to farmers in managing insects or improving yield in soybean fields. And a comprehensive review by an international team of scientists, called the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, found that the effectiveness of alternative pest management techniques eliminates the need to use neonicotinoids.

Regulatory status   
Over the past year, major actions in Europe and Canada have been taken to ban or restrict the use of neonicotinoids. After the European Union (EU) instituted its initial moratorium on neonic applications to flowering crops in 2013, accumulated research led to a permanent extension of this ban to include all outdoor uses of these systemic insecticides in May 2018. Canadian regulators have issued interim decisions on several neonicotinoids, with recommendations that will significantly curtail their uses, but the country has stopped short of banning the chemicals all together.

In the United States, EPA issued very minor changes to neonicotinoid product labels in 2013, but has yet to take substantive action to restrict use. President Obama created a National Pollinator Health Strategy with a number of lofty goals, but there is no indication that the Trump Administration is continuing this work. However, state level action has been seen in Connecticut and Maryland, where consumer uses of neonicotinoids have been eliminated. Numerous local communities, universities, and retailers have also taken action to remove neonicotinoid pesticides from use in their land management practices or store shelves.

A number of U.S. lawsuits have sought to protect pollinators from neonics and neonic-coated seeds. The lawsuit Ellis v. Housenger (EPA), originally filed in March 2013 by beekeeper Steve Ellis and a coalition of beekeepers and environmental groups including Beyond Pesticides, focused on EPA’s failure to protect pollinators from dangerous pesticides and challenged EPA’s oversight of the bee-killing pesticides, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, as well as the agency’s practice of “conditional registration” and labeling deficiencies. The ruling in the case by a federal judge in May 2017 declared that EPA violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) when it issued 59 neonicotinoid insecticide registrations between 2007 and 2012 for pesticide products containing clothianidin and thiamethoxam.


What You Can Do

There is an alternative to the indiscriminate poisoning of pollinators and ecosystems. A solution exists that is effective, productive, economically viable, and sustainable and does not require yet another new toxic pesticide or genetically engineered crop: organic land management. By respecting the environment, the complexity and benefits of interconnected ecosystems, organic agriculture protects pollinators and enhances the benefits we derive from the natural environment. See Beyond Pesticides’ Eating With a Conscience database for more on why organic is the right choice, and the Bee Protective webpage for additional resources you can use to go organic and safeguard pollinator populations.


Join the effort to move your community to organic land management practices. See Beyond Pesticides’ resources to assist in the adoption of organic policies and practices.