Bigger Picture

Jessica Lougue

By: Jessica Louque

Pesticides and Beekeepers – A Difficult Relationship

In previous months, I’ve given a presentation on pesticides and beekeepers several times. It’s garnered mixed reviews based on the audience, but overall has been fairly well received. After reading some of the columns in Bee Culture and seeing some of the things being posted on the internet, I decided it might be time to convert it to an article.

The internet seems to have become the source for unverified information by “experts” of all genres. If something is posted on Facebook, then it is clearly true and scientifically valid. For those of you who don’t like surprise endings – my position is that education is the most important factor in this Bees vs. Pesticides trial that is happening across the world.

History of Insecticides

Ignoring the bee side completely, let’s take a quick look at insecticides in America’s history. Although plant protection products have been used for thousands of years, most recognizable history would start in the nineteenth century with arsenicicals, particularly the use of Paris green for control of everything from mosquitoes carrying malaria to Colorado Potato Beetles. It’s also a pigment used in fireworks. As mentioned in Katherine Kiefer’s article in Bee Culture in April 2017, this formulation as lead arsenate was used for coddling moth control to the point that the tracts of lands affected are no longer habitable by humans. DDT was discovered earlier than it was used for an insecticide, but those properties weren’t recognized until the late 1930s. Aside from DDT and the organochlorines, organophosphates (OPs) and carbamates were the main classes of pesticides to be used in residential and agricultural areas. Currently, only 36 or so are still registered in the U.S. and most of those are for agricultural use. They are toxic to mammals, birds, fish, insects, amphibians, and in particular can cause cancer, neurodegenerative, and reproductive effects on humans with increased exposure (such as field workers). The largest man-made disaster in history occurred due to the production of carbamates when a Union Carbide plant exploded in India and killed something like 3800 people – not just from the explosion, but from the toxic release of chemicals. The OPs produced Sarin, a chemical warfare agent that was discovered when German chemists were attempting to develop a stronger pesticide. Exposure to Sarin in miniscule amounts can cause death within minutes without an antidote. Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is an antidote because it essentially slows a body down. The scientific name, “pretty lady” comes from the use of belladonna by women to dilate their pupils to appear prettier. Belladonna by itself can be extremely toxic, but as always, the dose makes the poison. If belladonna (in medicinal form) is administered to a Sarin victim, death may be avoided but neurological damage may never go away.

Some common OPs and carbamates that can be purchased for agricultural use, or even at a home improvement store, are:

  • Orthene® (acephate): used in agriculture for sucking/chewing pests
  • Lorsban® (chlorpyrifos): used mostly for urban and home pests
  • Spectracide® (diazinon): sold for homeowners to control home pests
  • Sevin® (carbaryl): sold for homeowners to control garden pests
  • Malathion/Parathion: vector control for mosquitoes – likely has saved millions of lives from mosquito-borne diseases, also used in prescription lice medication for kids

These chemicals have been mostly replaced by newer and safer chemicals, but they are still highly effective and used when necessary. This class also has to be used at a higher rate than more recent pesticides and can be quite expensive to purchase.

Pyrethroids were the next major class to be used in large quantities. Pyrethrin is derived from Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium, which is a mum. It’s a pretty potent insecticide, and if it’s used as just pyrethrin, it can be considered organic because of its origins. Pyrethrin or pyrethroids (the synthetic version created in a lab) can be combined with PBO, or piperonyl butoxide, which acts as a synergist and can increase the efficacy of a pyrethroid by inhibiting the ability to metabolize pyrethroids by the target pest. This is fairly common in pesticides that are used to combat bed bugs or insects that have built up a pyrethroid resistance.

“Aside from DDT and the organochlorines, organophoshates (OPs) and carbamates were the main classes of pesticides to be used in residential and agricultural areas.”

One of the major benefits of pyrethroids is that they are considered “low toxicity” to mammals and birds. For farm workers or people in higher exposure situations, this means they are less likely to have long term detrimental effects or suffer acute effects from a pyrethroid. The downside to pyrethroids is that they don’t break down in water so they can be highly toxic to fish. On the upside, it takes a low dose to be effective, meaning that it doesn’t take as much chemical to control the target pest and not as much is added to the environment. It also breaks down quickly in sunlight, so a foliar application is likely to degrade before it reaches a water sources and damages a fish population.

As I understand it, pyrethroids are common both in urban and agricultural settings, but most of my experience has been in the (urban) human side. Some pyrethroids that the average beekeeper might be familiar with would be Talstar® (bifenthrin), Suspend® (deltamethrin), Demand® (lambda-cyhalothrin), or permethrin. There are several over the counter (OTC) versions of permethrin sold for things like soaking your clothes before hiking, or an OTC lice control. As some of you know, part of my past research experience was on working with compounds to be used in an urban environment on pests that a typical homeowner or urbanite might encounter. Bedbugs can be a serious issue. I remember seeing a presentation by a professor who spent a significant portion of her research in low-income housing areas. She told a story of meeting a woman sitting on a couch surrounded by dead bedbugs. It turns out that the woman had so much cocaine (it may have been crystal meth) in her bloodstream that it killed bedbugs who bit her. In the event that a bedbug problem establishes in your living area, that may be a new pest control option. Whether you choose to partake yourself or hire someone who already has would be up to your discretion!

“One of the major benefits of pyrethroids is that they are considered “low toxicity” to mammals and birds. The downside to pyrethroids is that they don’t break down in water so they can be highly toxic to fish.”

Now, heading into the “Code Red” territory of the beekeepers, comes the Neonicotinoid class of insecticides. This is probably the most recognized class of insecticides by the general public. It was developed from nicotine, so it reacts similarly with insects as people who are addicted to nicotine. It’s low toxicity to mammals, birds, and fish make it safer to the environment than most of its predecessors. It’s also around people more than people would recognize – particularly their children. Imidacloprid is one of the most common active ingredients in flea and tick control. I would bet that most of you with pets have purchased imidacloprid in some form or fashion from your vet to keep ticks and fleas off of your pets and out of your house. Merit, another trade name of imidacloprid, can be purchased from a home and garden store for garden use. I personally have used it before to get rid of scale insects on some of my house plants. Most purchases of neonicotinoids are for agricultural use in some form or fashion. Clothianidin has received a lot of press because it’s used predominantly as a seed treatment (under trade name Poncho®) for corn. Thiamethoxam is used in agriculture and has something called the “Vigor Effect” because it creates healthier plants as a byproduct of application.

Dinotefuran is the crux of this chemistry class as far as public knowledge. Most people heard about the issue in the Oregon parking lot where linden trees were sprayed and killed thousands of bumble bees. I’m going to get a little off-topic here but I think this story needs some explanation. Most people I’ve heard from are of the opinion that it was clearly the fault of the pesticide for killing bees and it should be banned. However, it doesn’t seem that many people consider the situation that led to the death of those bees. As I understand it, aphids were on the linden trees and excreting “honey dew” on people’s cars while they shopped. Customers were complaining, so a contractor guy went out and blasted the trees with dinotefuran in a backpack sprayer – during full bloom in daytime. The store ended up initially bagging the trees to stop the exposure, and cut them down entirely when they couldn’t figure out what to do to stop the PR nightmare they were now facing. So, what should have happened here? Well, if I did that with my pesticide applicator’s license, at the very least it would be revoked, I’d lose my job, and most likely have to pay a hefty fine. In this case, the pesticide itself was demonized for blatant disregard of the label and little attention was paid to the human negligence that caused the situation to occur. I had an entire apiary site recently poisoned with a pesticide and lost 70 hives and a lot of money in replacement cost – but it doesn’t mean I think pesticides were to blame. It was straight-up uneducated human caused, whether by vandalism or misuse of some sort.

“I would bet that most of you with pets have purchased imidacloprid in some form or fashion from your vet to keep ticks and fleas off of your pets and out of your house.”

I’ve had a lot of experience with this particular chemistry, and I daresay it’s most likely the most hands-on experience with honey bees and neonicotinoid exposure of any of the researchers in the US. I can look at a colony of bees with high exposure to a neonic of any kind and be able to tell you the symptoms that prove neonic exposure, and I can tell you that the level of exposure that causes significant long-term effects is much higher than what would commonly be found in an agricultural setting of normal label use.

Pesticide Registration

As I’ve mentioned in some previous articles, we test pesticides to determine their effects on honey bee colonies. All of these chemicals are evaluated fairly extensively and incredibly expensively. We on the bee side are at the end of the line. Worker Exposure trials are usually the most important because the health of humans comes first and foremost in pesticides. The effects on animals are secondary if we all die immediately from exposure, or develop reproductive complications, or everyone gets cancer. Next comes birds, fish, and amphibians. These studies have to go through all different forms of exposure to evaluate not only acute (immediate) effects, but long term to the point of following the life of the exposed parents’ offspring and comparing them to unexposed parents’ offspring. Bees were not particularly a concern until maybe 15 years ago in the U.S. and we’re now playing catch-up on chemicals that were registered prior to this addition. New chemicals automatically run the gamut, but older chemicals are tested once their re-registration process begins (as happens with all pesticides, based on class of chemical).

A few very brave people have asked me how much we get paid off to make these chemicals look safe. These people obviously have not thought through the process of registration, or are uneducated in the pesticide industry. These chemical companies do not want the public relations monstrosity that comes with a bee kill, even when it’s unintentional. They’re not going to pay off a contract research organization to skew the data. Even if they did, we wouldn’t be able to falsify the data. We do these studies for years on end, which is why it seems like the public tidal wave of demand far exceeds the available information – we’re just not done yet so we don’t want to give false information. We have internal auditors that make sure we don’t screw up anything and document properly, the sponsor companies have auditors to make sure we don’t botch something important and that we’re trained properly for the job, and the EPA audits all the labs that produce data for registration. Every study we do for registration follows the Good Laboratory Practices (GLPs) guidelines. If it doesn’t, it will be rejected almost immediately. If you’d like to know more about GLP, please feel free to look this up. If you have an insomnia problem, I would bet that this could cure it within minutes. In essence, we record everything in a way that if someone else wanted to reproduce our study, they could follow everything we did and should come up with the same results. It’s also a way to show accountability because we sign off and date everything that is recorded.

“These chemical companies do not want the public relations monstrosity that comes with a bee kill even when it’s unintentional.”

For this registration process, we look at everything from effects on an individual bee or larvae (these are lab studies that other labs do but we don’t) to how the colonies are affected over the course of a year. We monitor brood cycles, marking 300+ eggs and follow them to adult emergence in different treatment rates. We assess colonies to the 5% coverage of everything on each side of a frame at pre-determined time points throughout the study for every frame side of every box of every hive in the study, usually numbering close to 100 colonies. We also test the chemicals by applying by the label and analyze the crops themselves to see what residues might lead to honey bee exposure. We hand sample pollen and nectar from thousands of flowers, or use bee colonies and trap pollen or collect foraging bees and dissect hundreds of bees per sample to pull out their honey stomachs and amass a sample of collected nectar to see exactly what goes into a hive. We have to know the physiology of every type of plant we work with, from the anther production to the dehiscing temperature to the difference across soil types. If we miss the bloom by a day or sometimes a few hours, we’ve lost an entire sampling point or potentially a study. We are constrained by environmental factors, and more than once have had battles with hurricanes or F4 tornadoes. These are complex, difficult, and expensive studies that require a lot of education and hard work to accomplish. We may come across issues in our studies, but I can assure you with every study that’s come across my desk that it was as good as we could possibly make it within the parameters we had to work with.

Neonicotinoids in Agriculture

Since neonicotinoids have been all the rage these days, I thought it might be a good primer to discuss their role in agriculture across the United States. Obviously, there are benefits to pesticides or a farmer wouldn’t use them. Farmers have a strict budget to maintain or they lose their profits for the year, and farm managers are only given a certain amount of money and have to use consultants and scouts to predict what will be the biggest problems of the year. In the commercial farming operations across the U.S., neonics average a 19% yield increase in the common crops. This doesn’t include potatoes, which increases by over 70% in yield with neonic use. There are over 130 million acres in production yearly that depend on seeds that are coated with a neonicotinoid product. For applications, the estimated amount of money it costs to purchase neonics and apply them (paying labor and equipment) is $782 million per year. This primarily affects corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and sorghum. As you may notice, most of these are not highly bee attractive (cotton excluded). Bees will go to these, but monoculture farming is no better from a bee perspective than the perceived pesticide exposure. If you’re eating nothing but cheeseburgers and the cows happen to have been treated while they’re alive and you die of heart failure, it would be pretty hard to say it was from the treatment and not the nutritional (or lack thereof) aspect.

“We monitor brood cycles, marking 300+ eggs and follow them to adult emergence in different treatment rates.”

If neonics are banned from the U.S., it’s going to be financially more difficult for most everyone but the chemical companies. I don’t think a lot of people calling for these bans truly understand the repercussions of their actions. It’s almost like there’s some sort of bizarre mindset that if neonics are banned, then no pesticides will be used. Instead, something more ecologically hazardous like the aforementioned organophosphates or pyrethroids will slip into the mainstream use. The estimated cost difference is not just in dollars, but in pounds (and I don’t mean British money). Without the use of neonics, an additional 15.1 million pounds of insecticides will be added to the environment to produce the same effectiveness. Most of these are expected to come from the organophosphate class, which will be less safe for farmers, field laborers, families, and most anything in contact with them. It more than doubles the amount of pesticide being added to the environment. In addition, it will add an estimated $848 million dollars on purchasing these alternate pesticides, and 80% of that cost increase is corn. This adds between $2-10 per acre for the 130+ million acres in production. This isn’t just going to come out of the farmers’ pockets, but the consumer as well. Take a moment here and think about what’s happened in Europe – do you think nothing replaced that neonic use or do you think the chemical companies are turning a nice profit filling in the gaps from the replacement pesticides? How is that going to affect the health of the public and the prices on their wallets in the long-term?


As I stated at the start, I believe that education is the key to a lot of issues that are prevalent in this argument. Beekeepers are some of the most opinionated people I’ve spoken with on the topic of pesticides, but a lot of them are not educated in that area. If I had my way, all beekeepers would have to take the private pesticide applicators licensing exam to at least educate themselves on the topic. In some sense, I think an “uneducation” would be beneficial – of not quoting things that pop up on Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat. Just because somebody made a meme about it doesn’t mean it’s true. Albert Einstein didn’t say jack crap about honey bees disappearing from the earth. Not only that, but people could indeed survive without bees even if it was with lower quality food – not that most people seem to care about that. Let’s be honest with ourselves as a society – bees don’t pollinate most of what goes on a cheeseburger and that’s the staple of the American diet. Just watch My 600-pound life on T.L.C. and see how many of those foods ever saw soil as an origination point. Please take into consideration what the source of your information is.

Another point here is that everyone has an agenda nowadays, but it’s up to you to decipher it. If someone is saying that literally every pesticide ever is killing bees and should be banned, what do they gain from that? Do they get paid more for pollination services? Do they get more grant money for research projects? Are they asking for public funding to pay for their salary to support their ideas? Or, do they create studies that purposely show no effects when there was one?

I don’t honestly know how to tell the average beekeeper how to read a peer-reviewed published report and pick out the major issues without a science background, other than find someone to ask about it that might know what’s happening. To be fair, it’s beneficial on my end for everybody to keep complaining about pesticides because that’s what fuels my industry. For my sanity, it drives me crazy to think about what the long-term damage will be if we as a whole start making emotional decisions that have no real science basis just to avoid the conflicts.


Texas A&M: What is a pyrethroid insecticide?

Pyrethroids Resource Center: About Pyrethroids.

Pyrethroid Working Group: Are you a responsible gardner?

EPA: Pyrethrins and Pyrethroids. 

Growing Matters: Resources (Neonicotinoids).

EPA: Organophosphate Insecticides.

Toxipedia: Organophosphates.

National Pesticide Information Center: Acephate.

FMC Global Specialty Solutions: Talstar.

EPA: Pollinator Protection.

EPA: Clothianidin update.

EPA: Group C – Terrestrial Beneficial Insects, Invertebrates, and Soil and Wastewater Microorganisms.

A Short History of Insecticides – Volodymyr Volodymyrovych Oberemok.

Jessica Louque and her husband, Bobby run Louque Agricultural Enterprises, a contract research business specializing in apicultural studies.