Neonicotinoid Pesticides: A Major Problem For Bees, Part VI

Ross Conrad

By: Ross Conrad

If you still think pesticides are not as big a concern as other issues like Varroa mites, you haven’t been paying attention.

Last month we explored some of the evidence indicating pesticide regulation in the U.S. is fraught with fake science, corruption and manipulation. Unfortunately, this is not new and attempts to reform our regulatory agencies have occurred over and over, always with failed results. In this last installment of this series, we look at why has this been the case.

Regulated Industries Take Over

It turns out that once the constitutional separation of powers is ignored and legislative, executive and judicial authority are all concentrated in one regulatory agency, it makes it easier for it to be corrupted by the industry it regulates – all industry has to do is exert its influence upon it and take it over. This is the experience of William Sanjour, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. EPA who wrote the Independent Science News article titled: Designed to Fail: Why Regulatory Agencies Don’t Work.

In the case of neonicotinoids for example, EPA writes the regulations (legislative – laws), the President appoints the administrators who are then beholden to the president, not congress, if they want to keep their jobs (executive), and the EPA has the power to declare findings of guilt and issue fines and punishment (judicial). According to Sanjour the root of the corruption and inefficiency at EPA and other regulatory bodies in the U.S. government is due to the fact that their functions span all three branches of government.

In the article, Sanjour describes not only how industry representatives get appointed to executive positions within agencies, but how gifts, bribery, flattery, meals, trips, hints of future employment, and even drugs and sexual relationships are used to capture regulatory agencies on behalf of industry. (Smith, 2008) This is part of the reason why as wealth becomes concentrated, there is a tendency for political power to follow which leads to government policies that move the cycle forward. Government employees quickly learn that they make enemies with powerful and influential people when they draft and implement rules governing big corporations. Folks who like to get things done and see results don’t last long. While they may not necessarily be fired, they are often transferred to meaningless jobs with no opportunity for advancement. These employees typically quit in disgust. Those that last learn to be team players, procrastinating, obfuscating, and creating superficially plausible reasons for accomplishing nothing. According to Sanjour, the primary reason regulations are so complex (and often written by industry) is so that they can easily hide loopholes. Regulatory capture is also the reason that beekeepers, whistleblowers, environmental groups and concerned citizens are the primary source of publically expressed issues and concerns about neonicotinoid pesticides. Such worries are not typically expressed by EPA, USDA, or any other government regulatory body.

Regulatory agencies being gradually taken over by the parties they regulate is not new and has been the subject of much academic study. Economist George Stigler won the Nobel Prize in 1982 “for his seminal studies of industrial structures, functioning of markets and causes and effects of public regulation.” Regulatory agencies once captured by regulated businesses provide the industry with the power of government and this is arguably worse than no regulation at all. We end up in a country with a government of industry, by industry, for industry.

Escaping Industries Grip

Reforms that tweak the current system while basically maintaining a business-as-usual approach are not going to prevent the dramatic declines in wild pollinators or improve the health of our honey bees.

Although the evidence was not conclusive, the EU, acting on the precautionary principle, took action in 2013 by imposing restrictions on the use of three neonicotinoids – clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam. Although these controls are often spoken of as a ban, the neonicotinoids may still be used under certain conditions and so it is more accurate to describe them as restrictions. Utilizing the latest studies and research, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is expected to finalize an updated risk assessment on the potential harm to bees from neonicotinoid pesticides early in 2018, as part of the EU’s process of deciding whether to continue restrictions on these neonicotinoids.

In July 2015, the Canadian province of Ontario enacted regulations designed to track the sale, use of neonic-treated seed and reduce the number of acres planted with them by 80 percent. In 2017, Ontario farmers were only allowed to plant neonic-coated seeds when they could provide evidence of pest problems. Meanwhile Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency has made a timid proposal to limit the use of a couple neonicotinoids and add more warning labels to the packaging.

While some cities in the U.S. have taken steps to ban neonicotinoid use, only a few state regulatory bodies have managed to avoid enough of the corrupting influence of industry to have retained some level of independence from Federal authorities and act where federal action is lacking. For example, there have been recommendations to protect pollinators from states such as Oregon, Minnesota and Vermont that have the potential to actually help protect pollinators and reduce pollinator decline provided state legislatures takes steps to adopt and implement them. Such recommendations include:

  • Banning prophylactic use of neonicotinoid pesticides
  • Decreasing pesticide toxicity and application rates
  • Eliminating household use of neonicotinoid pesticides
  • Banning neonicotinoid use on State lands and forests
  • Developing goals to gradually reduce and eliminate the use of all pesticide use over time.

The reality is that a majority of today’s farmers have come to rely heavily upon pesticides. Their farming equipment, systems and operations are all designed around the pesticides they use. However, farmers are not to blame here. Most of them don’t even know what is on the seed they are planting. All the farmer knows is that the seed treatments are legal, are said to have been scientifically vetted, and when planted they grow like crazy. The crux of the problem lies in a pesticide regulatory process corrupted by industry and government incompetence, conflict of interests, dishonesty, and a financial industry that funnels farmers into long-term loans for expensive machinery required for chemical intensive agriculture. Once heavily indebted, it becomes even more difficult for farmers to step off the pesticide treadmill.

Thanks to the Citizen’s United decision by SCOTUS that legalized unlimited political bribery, banning all pesticides outright is politically difficult. Meanwhile farmers are fed misinformation that suggests they would suffer economically without access to such toxic “tools” even though EU crop yield reports are up since neonicotinoids were restricted there and there is strong scientific evidence that indicates crop yields do not necessarily decline when neonicotinoid use is abandoned. (Sgolastra, 2017; Lechenet, 2017, Moore 2015, Budge 2015, Lechenet 2014)

A Suggested Approach

As much as an immediate ban on neonics would be best for pollinators and our damaged ecosystem, a more realistic approach that may actually have a chance of succeeding is to tackle the pesticide issue like we are tackling the climate destabilization issue: just as we are working to phase out the use of fossil fuels and replace them with renewable energy sources, we should also work to phase out the use of pesticides over time and replace them with non-toxic pest management techniques and compounds with extremely low toxicity. (Brown 2016, State of Nature Report) With the support of government and extension programs designed to provide technical and financial assistance, farmers can transition from chemically intensive agriculture to farming that is more in line with conservation and regenerative farming principles which will not only help protect pollinators but will help us bring stability to our climate by sequestering carbon in the soil at the same time. (see Bee Culture January and February 2016)

Other Challenges to Overcome

Honey bees deal with a complex system of stresses on their health. While wonderfully resilient, bees cannot cope with exposure to wave after wave of the toxic chemical exposures permitted and promoted by our dysfunctional political, regulatory and economic system. The underlying problem is that the majority of people (especially those in leadership and decision making positions) have come to identify with corporations and businesses for their ability to survive. It makes sense therefore that these same folks will fight to the death for the ability of corporations and businesses to continue to thrive. It is not that most people are failing to live up to their values. The problem, rather, is that our values themselves are counter to our survival. What we really require for survival are healthy rivers, streams, oceans, mountains, forests, meadows and lakes. Not enough of us are fighting to the death for these things to survive. Even more astounding when you think about it is the fact that corporations and businesses are not even real things. What is real about them are the people they employ and serve and the products and services they provide. The corporation is simply an idea around which real things are organized. The corporation itself only exists on paper, and yet we act to keep the concept of the business alive and healthy even when doing so is detrimental to the things that are real. We even give the corporation some of the same rights as people. It is as if the majority of our culture (or at least those in positions of power) have literally lost touch with reality.

I hate to have to point this out but losing touch with reality is one of the definitions of mental illness. This helps to explain the reality that our landscape, whether rural, urban, or domestic, along with crops, soil, water and air – is becoming increasingly toxic and dangerous to pollinators and is threatening life as we know it. We are witnessing the collapse of all the species that we grew up with in the countryside. Most Americans don’t appear to grasp the enormity of this unfolding ecological disaster and environmental crisis. What we are experiencing first hand is Ecocide – the poisoning of our entire ecosystem. 

Meanwhile proponents and defenders of pesticides stay firmly on message: “There are many factors contributing to bee deaths. It’s wrong to just focus on neonicotinoids and take away tools farmer’s use. We must rely on sound science. We must plant more flowers. It’s Varroa, Varroa, Varroa!”. . . All of this has the effect of deflecting and delaying taking meaningful action on a major problem for bees: Neonicotinoid pesticides.



Brown MJF, Dicks LV, Paxton RJ, Baldock KCR, Barron AB, Chauzat M, Freitas BM, Goulson D, Jepsen S, Kremen C, Li J, Neumann P, Pattemore DE, Potts SG, Schweiger O, Seymour CL, Stout JC. (2016) A horizon scan of future threats and opportunities for pollinators and pollination. PeerJ 4:e2249 doi: 10.7717/peerj.2249

Budge, G.E., Garthwaite, D., Crowe, A., Boatman, N.D., Delaplane, K.S., Brown, M.A., Thygesen, H.H., Pietravalle, S., (2015) Evidence for pollinator cost and farming benefits of neonicotinoid seed coatings on oilseed rape, Scientific Reports 5:12574 doi:10.1038/srep12574

Lechenet, M., Dessaint, F., Py, G., Makowski, D., Munier-Jolain, N., (2017) Reducing pesticide use while preserving crop productivity and profitability on arable farms, Nature Plants 3, Article No. 17008, doi:10.1038/nplants.2017.8

Lechenet, M., Bretagnolle, V., Bockstaller, C., Boissinot, F., Petit, M.S., Petit, S., Munier-Jolain, N.M., (2014) Reconciling pesticide reduction with economic and environmental sustainability in arable farming. PLoS ONE 9, e97922

Moore, Oliver (2015) Oilseed Rape Crop Yield Up in UK, Despite Pesticide Ban, Agriculture and Rural Convention 2020.

Sanjour, W., (2012) Designed to Fail: Why Regulatory Agencies Don’t Work, Independent Science News;

Sgolastra, F., Porrini, C., Maini, S., Bortolotti, L., Medrzycki, P., Mutinelli, F., Lodesani, M.,  (2017) Healthy honey bees and sustainable maize production: why not? Bulletin of Insectology, 70(1):156-160

Smith, G. W., (2008) Investigative Report (Redacted), Office of the Inspector General,

Species at risk of extinction due to intensive pesticide based farming. Need to invest in Natural Capital. The State of Nature Report 2016: UK

Ross Conrad is the author of Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches To Modern Apiculture, 2nd Edition.