Across the picturesque meadows and grassy hills of the wild and sown fields alike, the labourers harken to the call of spring. On two feet or on wings of flight they advance to work, to struggle, and to provide, for their homes and their nests. A beautiful symbiosis between harvester existed, and in some places still does, with these ancient Apis pollinators. In one group lie the tried and true, the robust and rich, means for survival; to drink and regurgitate nature’s sweet drink until it is refined into liquid gold. The other, in its insatiable ambition, forsook this treaty, unknowingly at first, by donning the garb of the chemist.

This peaceful relationship was envied by the other members of the insect world, and they too came to eat and drink in the legally delineated industrial plains. In simmering greed, the miniscule infesters were banished and any and all remaining trespassers doomed to die. Productivity soared with this newfound neonicotinoid pesticide arsenal with the meddling bugs no more. The bees, honey, bumble, and wild, fought to survive. The strong held their breath against the fumes and their bellies against the poison, but this seed-integrated pesticide left no stem, leaf, flower, or nectar unfouled, and so the bees suffered. This adding to their compound suffering of habitat loss and fragmentation, climate change, disease, and pests, our fuzzy friends slipped down the slippery slope of colony collapse. With so many factors at play, and at times science countering its own evidence, Big Agriculture remains addicted to this chemical weapon, holding the bees hostage and demanding the cash.

The fact-finding obsession of the researchers led them to collectively publish nearly 500 papers in the last decade [1]. Studies riddled with variable and conflicting findings and an information gap in the precise mechanisms by which pollinators are affected by neonicotinoids left policymakers wishing to act backed with facts perplexed and unable to make decisions. What’s clear is what’s obvious: at high enough dosages, bees will be killed [1][2]. A growing body of research is slowly settling the dust, or the pollen, of the issue. Nonlethal doses of neonicotinoids cause changes to the genetic structure and hinder the development of honeybees [3], and they affect their social structure so that bees spend less time caring for the brood and more time at the perimeter of the nest [1]. They also cancel out the health benefits of oilseed crops, a popular choice among some bumblebees [4]. In addition to causing bees to abandon the hive over winter and die out [5], it also causes them to become less biologically recalcitrant to mites, parasites, and pathogens, leading to Colony Collapse Disorder [5]. If that wasn’t enough, one variety of neonicotinoids can be environmentally persistent when it manages to escape the sun’s purifying rays by finding cover a few inches under the surface of a glimmering stream, looking for more innocent arthropods to oxidize [6].

Photo by Dikaseva

Why then should crop farmers continue to use these pesticides? Surely the claim to the unknowing innocence of the child is long gone. Perhaps, after tasting blood, the great mechanized shark cannot control itself. Or perhaps those proponents of productivity convince themselves they are the exception to the rule; while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that neonicotinoid seed treatments provide no economic benefits in northeastern and north Midwestern states, a 10-year study in the southern states of that country showed a definite increase in crop yield [7].

All- is not lost, however. The invincible power of hope brightens our grim future. The same EPA accelerated its assessment of neonicotinoids and expects it to be complete by 2018, though it has been unsuccessfully sued in the past for performing inadequate toxicity evaluations after denying an Emergency Petition to suspend the use of one neonicotinoid. The Ville de Montreal banned the use of neonicotinoids outright on all city properties. Health Canada released a draft risk assessment and proposed a ban on almost all uses of imidacloprid in November of 2016. Countries in Europe have imposed temporary bans on varieties in response to acute incidents of bee deaths and scientific publications, though more research needs to be done before permanent solutions are imposed.

The honeybee, our faithful friend, continues to pollinate one third of the world’s agricultural crops despite the hardships. Amidst the gradual and sudden losses in colony strength, where strength is in numbers, the genetic and behavioural alteration, and the helplessness against its living and semi-living adversaries the bees live on. They first emerged some 120 million years ago and crossed the K-T boundary, surviving the event that wiped out the dinosaurs over 65 million years ago, to flourish wherever flowers are found. How they did that was up to them, but now it’s up to us to see them safely through Earth’s sixth major extinction.

Photo by James Pritchett

By Husein Almuhtaram

Please note that opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.


[1] Callin M. Switzer, Stacey A. Combes. The neonicotinoid pesticide, imidacloprid, affects Bombus impatiens (bumblebee) sonication behavior when consumed at doses below the LD50. Ecotoxicology, 2016; 25 (6): 1150

[2] H. Charles J. Godfray, Tjeerd Blacquière, Linda M. Field, Rosemary S. Hails, Simon G. Potts, Nigel E. Raine, Adam J. Vanbergen, Angela R. McLean. A restatement of recent advances in the natural science evidence base concerning neonicotinoid insecticides and insect pollinators. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2015; 282 (1818)

[3] Kamila Derecka, Martin J. Blythe, Sunir Malla, Diane P. Genereux, Alessandro Guffanti, Paolo Pavan, Anna Moles, Charles Snart, Thomas Ryder, Catharine A. Ortori, David A. Barrett, Eugene Schuster, Reinhard Stöger. Transient Exposure to Low Levels of Insecticide Affects Metabolic Networks of Honeybee Larvae. PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (7)

[4] Ben A. Woodcock, Nicholas J. B. Isaac, James M. Bullock, David B. Roy, David G. Garthwaite, Andrew Crowe, Richard F. Pywell. Impacts of neonicotinoid use on long-term population changes in wild bees in England. Nature Communications, 2016; 7: 12459

[5] Chensheng Lu, Kenneth M. Warchol, Richard A. Callahan. Sub-lethal exposure to neonicotinoids impaired honey bees winterization before proceeding to colony collapse disorder. Bulletin of Insectology, May 9, 2014

[6] Zhe Lu, Jonathan K. Challis, Charles S. Wong. Quantum Yields for Direct Photolysis of Neonicotinoid Insecticides in Water: Implications for Exposure to Nontarget Aquatic Organisms. Environmental Science & Technology Letters, 2015

[7] Jeff Gore et al. Value of Neonicotinoid Insecticide Seed Treatments in Mid-South Soybean (Glycine max) Production Systems. Journal of Economic Entomology, April 2016