closeup of a bee

Comment | Why not ban an insecticide that kills bees?

Pesticides are excellent for the control of pests but what happens when they attack your friends?

Thiamethoxam is a neonicotinoid insecticide with a broad spectrum of activity against insects. It was approved for use in the US in 1999 as an antimicrobial pesticide, wood preservative and insecticide and is still approved for use in a wide range of crops.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the U.N. rates thiamethoxam as “moderately hazardous to humans (WHO class III)”, non-toxic to fish, daphnia and algae, mildly toxic for birds, highly toxic to midges and acutely toxic for bees.

Wait a minute, acutely toxic to bees.

Yes, bees. 

You know, the insects that are

  • essential for pollination of kiwifruit, Brazil nut, watermelon, melon, squash, pumpkin, gourd, marrow, zucchini, macadamia, passion fruit and rowanberry. 
  • the dominant pollinators for another 26 crops including apples, avocado, pears, mangos and numerous berries. 

Why would we use an insecticide that kills animals so essential to our food supply?

Well, now we don’t.

In 2018, the European Commission banned the outdoor use of thiamethoxam because of the potential to harm bees. Growers can only use the chemicals in permanent greenhouses.

Except where we do.

The US Environmental Protection Agency proposed an interim decision to allow thiamethoxam use, but with new measures to reduce risks to pollinators and protect public health. Measures included additional PPE for farm workers who handle the pesticide and restrictions on applying the pesticides to blooming crops to protect bees and other pollinators. 

The UK government has authorised thiamethoxam use on sugar beet in England in 2022 because of the potential risk of yellows viruses, spread by aphids, which could severely damage 70% of the national sugar beet crop. Note the word ‘could’.

You see, there are benefits to Brexit after all.

As Craig Bennett, the chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts in the UK points out…

“Government has outlined ambitions to restore nature, promising to protect 30% of land by 2030 and reverse declines of precious wildlife – but at the same time, it is giving a green light to use a highly toxic chemical that could harm pollinating insects and pollute soils and rivers,”

Yes, it all seems a tad contradictory.

But wait.

The UK National Farmers’ Union (NFU) says 3,000 farmers grow sugar beet, and the wider industry supports around 9,500 jobs in England, mainly in the East. 

What if the farmers, and related industry workers, were compensated for any crop losses instead of allowing a damaging pesticide?

Suppose that is 10,000 jobs at the average wage, roughly US$42,000, impacted for a year. 

Cost $420 million.

The economic value (2020 GBP) of insect pollination in the UK has been estimated at between £364 million (Carreck and Williams 1998) to £610 million (Smith et al. 2011)—in USD $485 to $813 million.

So there you have it.

The future loss of production is less significant than the costs of saving jobs today.

So why not ban an insecticide that kills bees?

It’s politically expedient not to.

What sustainably FED suggests

This example of failure to account for externalities illustrates a massive failing of humanity that has decreased our resilience and increased the risk of collapse. We are hopeless at integration. One hand is held out in a generous gesture of friendship while the other forms a fist.

We live in silos—the protection agency issues a warning and the government ignores the advice—and we struggle to extend our thinking beyond our tribe. The value of the moment rules our decisions and we fail to see any of the broader consequences.

Bees are critically important to agriculture, and they should be protected from harm and their habitat enhanced. And no, micro-drones are not the answer.

Bees are also a metaphor for how little we appreciate the interconnectedness of nature and our dependency on it.

Hero image from photo by Kai Wenzel on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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