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Pesticides harm more than bees, says biologist’s study

Pollinators such as bumblebees might not be the only wildlife affected by neonicotinoids, says new research

Soil organisms, aquatic life and farmland birds may all be harmed by neonicotinoid insecticides, according to a new study by University of Sussex biologist Professor Dave Goulson.

Neonicotinoid insecticides have been in the news because of growing concern that they are linked to serious declines in bee species – resulting in a two-year EU ban in April 2013 of three neonicotinoids commonly used in Europe.

But Professor Goulson’s study – ‘An overview of the environmental risks posed by neonicotinoid insecticides’1 – published this week (Friday 14 June 2013) in the Journal of Applied Ecology and which draws together data from diverse sources including the agrochemical industry’s own research, reveals that harm to bees may be just the tip of the iceberg.  

Neonicotinoids are mostly applied as seed dressings, intended to be absorbed by the crop, but well over 90 per cent of the active ingredient goes into the soil and leaches into groundwater, where it persists for years.

Data from agrochemical manufacturer Bayer on the persistence of neonicotinoids in soil are made widely available for the first time in Professor Goulson’s study. The data first came to light during investigations by the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee.

According to the data neonicotinoids, if used regularly, accumulate in soil to concentrations far higher than those that kill bees, posing a risk to soil invertebrates and soil health.

Professor Goulson says: “Any pesticide that can persist for many years, build up in soil, and leach into waterways is likely to have effects far beyond the pest insects it intends to target. This is particularly so when the pesticide is highly toxic to non-target organisms. For example, less than one part per billion of the neonicotinoid imidacloprid in streams is enough to kill mayflies.”

The study also highlights risks for grain-eating birds such as partridge, which need eat only a few neonicotinoid-treated grains of crop to receive a lethal dose.

This latest evidence calls into question the effectiveness of the recent two-year EU moratorium on use of some neonicotinoids on flowering crops. Professor Goulson says: “Neonicotinoids will still be widely used on cereals, so the broader environmental impacts are likely to continue. Given the longevity of these compounds, they would be in our soils for years to come even under an absolute ban, so two years is far too short to produce any benefit, even if there were any clear plan to monitor such benefits – which there is not. It is entirely unclear what this two-year moratorium is meant to achieve”.

Professor Goulson also draws attention to the lack of publicly-available evidence on the effectiveness of neonicotinoids. He says: “Studies from the US suggest that neonicotinoid seed dressings may be either entirely ineffective or cost more than the benefit in crop yield gained from their use. We seem to be in a situation where farmers are advised primarily by agronomists involved in selling them pesticides.”

Notes for Editors

1 Dave Goulson (2013) “An overview of the environmental risks posed by neonicotinoid insecticides”, doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12111, is published in the Journal of Applied Ecology on 14 June 2013.

Copies of the paper are available from the author or from Becky Allen, British Ecological Society Press Officer, tel: +44 (0)1223 570016, mob: + 44 (0)7949 804317, email:

The Journal of Applied Ecology is published by Wiley-Blackwell for the British Ecological Society.

For further information, please contact Professor Dave Goulson, School of Life Sciences, University of Sussex, tel: 01786 467759 or 01273 678843, email:

Dave Goulson is author of A Sting in the Tale, a best-selling book about bumblebees (Cape, 2013).

Neonicotinoids are the most widely used insecticides in the world, with about 80 tonnes applied to 1.3 million hectares in the UK. They are mostly applied as a seed dressing, and being systemic they are absorbed by the growing crop and spread through its tissues.

Neonicotinoids are neurotoxins that exhibit extremely high toxicity to beneficial insects; for example the LD50 (dose that kills 50 per cent of test subjects) for the most commonly used neonicotinoid, clothianidin, is 4 billionths of a gram in honeybees. Lower doses cause disorientation, navigational errors and impair learning and food gathering in bees. 

The British Ecological Society is the oldest ecological society in the world. A learned society and registered charity, the BES supports ecological science through its five academic journals, other publications, events, grants and awards. Founded in 1913, the BES is celebrating its centenary this year with a series of special events across the UK designed to give everyone the chance to get involved in ecology. For more information visit

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email:

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Last updated: Friday, 14 June 2013