Legislation reducing the use of neonicotinoids, notably in the EU and, more recently, in California, is generally viewed as a victory for pollinators like honey bees. However, some scientists worry that bans on neonicotinoids could cause farmers to turn to older and potentially more harmful insecticides instead.
The Washington Post reports that since the EU moratorium on the use of three key neonicotinoids went into effect in 2014, farmers in England have turned to pyrethroid pesticides, which are derived from two species of asters and are currently permitted in organic agriculture. Pyrethroid insecticides are reportedly low in toxicity to mammals and birds, but they are highly toxic to most insects including beneficial insects like honey bees.
A 2015 study in Chemosphere found that sublethal doses of pyrethroids reduced the movement and social interaction of honey bees.
“The strength of a (honey bee) colony relies on the proper functioning of its members to perform all of the necessary duties, such as foraging for food and communicating with other bees,” said lead author Erin Ingram, a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “If bee locomotion, social interaction, or ability to feed are impaired by sublethal exposure to pesticides, this could potentially impact colony survival or performance.”
Another possible alternative to neonicotinoids is the organophosphate category of insecticides, including chlorpyrifos. These insecticides are are far more toxic to humans than neonicotinoids according to the EPA, which writes that while thirty-six such pesticides are presently registered for use in the U.S., “All can potentially cause acute and subacute toxicity.”
Amro Zayed, who was involved with a recent Canadian neonicotinoid study published in the peer-reviewed journal Science, notes that despite the results of this research, which proved that neonicotinoids are harmful to honey bees, an all-out ban of the pesticides might not be the answer. Zayed recommends reducing the use of neonicotinoids, applying them only once a pest problem occurs instead of the current preemptive use status quo.
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