The devil is in the details. This is true for many contexts and circumstances. The other day I was having a conversation about the decline of insects and the topic of neonicotinoids arose. It didn’t take long for me to realize that apart from knowing that neonicotinoids are “bad” and are closely linked to the decline of important pollinator populations, my knowledge about them was very limited; I did not know exactly what they were or how they worked. I decided to read up on them and I thought I’d share some of what I learned with you in case you are ever in the same situation!
What are neonicotinoids?
Neonicotinoids (or neonics) are a group of chemicals that are closely related to nicotine (and actually, bees have shown a preference for nectar containing neonicotinoids). They are neuro-active chemicals that humans use to kill insects, notably those that are pests in relation to us and our activities. They are a fairly new class of insecticide, with Shell starting to research them in the 1980s and Bayer in the 1990s. However, within the past two decades they have become the most widely used insecticides globally.
How do they work?
Neonicotinoids are neuro-active substances that work by interfering with the insect’s central nervous system. They kill or paralyze the insect by binding with the insect’s receptors for the nicotinic acetylcholine enzyme. Because insects, and especially bees, have more of these types of neuro-pathways than mammals and birds, the neonicotiniods disproportionally affect insects. Neonicotinoids are systemtic meaning they are incorporated into the plants through the soil or the leaves and then the plants spread them to the flowers and fruits. When the insects consume the plant, they ingest the chemical.
Neonicotinoids remain active for many weeks and thus one neonic application or treatment can last a long time. The reduced impact of neonics on mammals and birds and the effectiveness of neonic treated seeds and the lower rates of application than other environmentally disruptive pesticides contribute to their popularity (source).
What are they used for?
Neonicotinoids come in many forms (liquids, powder, granules, dust, dissolvable tablets etc.) and are used to control and minimize insects detrimental insects, or pests, in agriculture, greenhouses, gardens, lawns, ornamentals, etc. and to pre-treat seeds for a range of agricultural crops. Though there are billions of insects on the planet, a small handful are considered “pests” in relation to humans and human activities, and this is particularly true in agriculture. In our agricultural systems we grow a handful of species, usually in high densities and usually in monoculture systems that have little to no plant diversity and correspondingly low insect diversity. If a certain insect has a taste for the one crop we are growing (for example a caterpillar that only eats cabbage) then we have created a paradise for them! But we do not want them there because they will destroy our hard work and our yield. So in agriculture we often have to find ways to maintain a balance in the insect populations (between good and bad) to ensure that we do not loose our crop to the insects that have a preference for what we are growing. There are a number of ways to achieve this balance. One option is to apply chemical products to kill insects, and neonicotinoids fall into this.
So what is the big deal and why are they so bad?
The big deal is that neonicotinoids are wreaking havoc on many insect populations. They are not selective, and so, as they kill the “bad” insects, they also kill the numerous beneficial ones. Insects, even if you are squeamish, are extremely important to us and to the world. If we loose insects we loose the pollination services that aid in plant reproduction and provide a huge proportion of our food, and support uncountable food-webs in nature. The link between neonicotinoids and colony collapse disorder (CCD) in honeybee populations is one example that has been researched in recent years and has gained significant press. Research into the effects of neonicotinoids has lead to actions to halt their use. These include a temporary suspension on the use of certain neonicotinoids by the European Commission and a law passed in Ontario, Canada in 2015 to begin curbbing their use. However, some farmers are unhappy with bans on certain neonicotinoids and companies manufacturing neonicotinoids dispute their effects on bee populations. In July 2015 the UK government suspended the two-year ban on neonic use to fight the flea beetle in oilseed rape (the two year ban ends in December).
What can you do?
- Educate yourself. This blog presents a drop in the ocean of the information out there and thankfully this body of knowledge keeps growing. But, as with anything you research, make sure you are aware of where the information is coming from, who paid for the research, who undertook it, how the study was done, data interpreted, and who is disseminating it… etc. But you know all that.
- Teach others
- Buy organic when possible (but be aware of how and what the certification means) and local!
- Encourage governments to take action to ban these products
- Don’t use them yourselves! When purchasing products look at the label and ensure that the active ingredient is not one of these neonicotinoids: acetamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, nitenpyram, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam
Francisco Sánchez-Bay.15 November 2014. The trouble with neonicotinoids Science.
Erik Stokstad. 10 May 2013. How Big a Role Should Neonicotinoids Play in Food Security? Science