What is killing the bees? It's the neonicotinoids, for sure.


I want to start out by welcoming all you bee experts who think it is not the neonicotinoids, or that it is not so simple, to make your case in the comments. There is a great deal of controversy over what is causing bees to die off. That controversy even impinges on how we describe the thing we are talking about. Notice that I've not used the term "colony collapse disorder" because that is a term that may have been misused, or at least, that people who know stuff have noted has been used incorrectly thus mucking up the discussion.

Here's the thing. There is a bee crisis. Specifically, bees are an important part of modern horticulture and industrialized farming in that they pollinate many crops. Every year professional bee keepers supply bees for this purpose. These are generally not native bees just doing their jobs, but rather, just as much part of the modern technology of growing food as are combines and crop dusters. Every year, the bee keepers put their bees away (more or less) for the winter, and in the spring, the wintered-over bee colonies are ready to go to work. Every year, a certain number of bee colonies do not survive that process, but they are replaced by other new colonies that fork off from the colonies that do survive. In recent decades, the number of bee colonies in this commercial setting that don't survive the cycle has gone up, and this is associated with other worrying variables such as reduced population size in individual colonies, etc.

There has been a big fight over what causes the collapse. One of the primary suspects is neonicotinoids, a chemical that is spewed across the fields in order to kill insects. It was suggested some time ago that the decline of a particular insect, bees, might be caused by the wide spread use of a chemical designed to kill insects, neonicotinoids.

Who would have thought?

The idea was, of course, preposterous, because why would insect killing juice kill insects? Also, Big Ag owns a lot of the researchers, right? A lot of people are going to lose their jobs (as Vice Presidents In Charge of Killing Insects, or whatever) if it turns out that their insecticides kill insects. And, a very large amount of the research done these days in Ag is done by people with professorships, labs, fellowship, grants, etc with names like "Cargill" and "Monsanto" ... which of course means NOTHING ... why would paying for people's careers ever influence what they do with those careers.

Anyway, I'm told that the jury is in and neonicotinoids are convicted. I am personally not going to support this argument one way or another for one simple reason: I don't know what I'm talking about. I do not know enough about the details of how neonicotinoids kill insects, so I certainly can't easily understand the process whereby neonicotinoids DON'T affect bees in particular, so I'm certainly not going to understand the process of how neonicotinoids kill insects but not bees but end up killing the bees anyway.

But you can read about it here: Environment: Smoking gun in honey bee die-off?

Big Ag. Can't live with it, can't live without it.

(In case anyone didn't get the subtext here I'll repeat one item in clearer language: The bees are part of Big Ag. They are not part of the natural environment being messed up by Big Ag. So this is kind of like one kind of tractor being run over and crushed by another kind of factor.)

OK, start fighting:

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Previously, the main contenders were immune suppression by Varroa mites and the israeli acute paralysis virus.

To what extent are these proposed contributing factors still relevant?

By Emil Karlsson (not verified) on 11 May 2014 #permalink

Well, a positive finding about one cause can't (or at least, usually won't) be a direct argument against another cause, but if there is a handful of possible causes and only one of them ends up looking strong, then the others may fade away.

(Also, since this is biology/ecology, finding a primary cause does not necessarily eliminate other causes!)

Many years ago I saw a TV show on use of bees to pollinate alfalfa. I think it is one of the best nature shows I have seen. Unfortunately I cannot immediately Google it. None of the bees, as I recall, were the usual honey bee. There were solitary ground nesting bees, and carpenter leaf cutting bees. There was an 18 wheeler filled with gang-drilled 2 x 4's full of carpenter bees. Go to the field in the morning and open the sides. One scene where the lady is telling the spray plane to hold off because all the bees are not back in. Maybe you can find it.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 11 May 2014 #permalink

When I search for that the only thing I find is your comment here on this page!

The major use of neonicotinoids isn't really as an "insecticide", it is used as a seed dressing. That is, it is applied to seeds before they are planted.


Because it increases yields.

The effects of plant growth by neonicotinoids are not only mediated through reduction of insect predation, there are also stimulatory effects due to hormesis


via activation of stress response pathways. These stress response pathways are non-specific and can be activated in other ways. The activation causes increased growth in many types of plants.


It is the stimulatory effects via hormesis that cause increased yields (mostly). That the neonicotinoids also are toxic to insects is a coincidence.

The toxicity is due to disruptions of acetylcholine metabolism.  Acetylcholine is used as a signaling molecule, so the effects of interference with acetylcholine signaling need to be examined over the entire lifespan, including while the acetylcholine-utilizing pathways are developing (before pupation) and while they are self-regulating their utilization of acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is used to regulate the function of nerves, so behaviors are what need to be looked at.

The effects at the earlies stages and at the lowest doses are endocrine disruption effects. These can have life-long effects by changing the thresholds for activation of signaling pathways. The effects might not show up until late in life. The last stage of bee life is foraging. If foraging behaviors are disrupted, then the hive may not gather sufficient resources to survive.

The main use of neonicotinoids is as seed-dressing compounds, not as a specific response to a specific insect threat. That is poor pesticide practice, but the neonicotinoids are not being used as insecticides for these plant growth stimulating effects.

I suspect this is the same reason that methyl mercury was used as a seed dressing compound. It increased yields.

By daedalus2u (not verified) on 11 May 2014 #permalink

One of the reasons against the neonicotenoids is because the bee-killing phenomena is older than the use of neonicotenoids.
I'm an agronomist (in a tropical country), and we use a neonicotenoid (tiametoxan) for killing the sucking bugs in rice, and other leaf-eating and sucking bugs in other crops. It method of actions is by ingestion.
On of the advantages of that neonicotenoid is its specificity against the crops pest and relatively harmless against other insects.
A good question is if the polen or the nectar of the crops has that neonicotenoid, and the bees eat it and die, but I think the persistence is against that. Like an agronomist I prefer not to abandon that pesticide, but is difficult to find reliable information to an agronomist level.

edivimo, what pollinates the rice? I've lived on tropical farms that grow rice (dry country, African) but somehow I don't know what pollinates the crop. I was assuming rice was wind pollenated.

One could ask the question, if neonicotenoid is being used (carefully) on crops where honey bee pollination is not being relied on, it should not make too much difference. It may be that if we want large scale production of crops that rely on hone bees that we can't use neonicotenoids in those areas.

When seeds coated with neonicotinoids are planted, the neonicotinoid particulates get blown around and picked up by bees. For example the tree in the Target parking lot that was sprayed because aphids were causing sap to drip on cars.

Bees can also get exposure from pollen and nectar from plants treated with neonicotinoids. This is true even for non-food crops.


By daedalus2u (not verified) on 11 May 2014 #permalink

Rice is mostly self-pollinating but bees and other hymenoptera usually are seen recollecting pollen in rice fields, at least in this part of the world (Central America).
Other point to mention is that commercial bees here are africanized bees, they're tougher, but they're not used for any agricultural pollinization.
Instead there is a lot of wild tropical insects for pollinization, so here is not a problem.

“So you recommend that pregnant women eat organic produce?” I asked Grandjean, a Danish-born researcher who travels around the world studying delayed effects of chemical exposure on children.
“That’s what I advise people who ask me, yes. It’s the best way of preventing exposure to pesticides.” Grandjean estimates that there are about 45 organophosphate pesticides on the market, and “most have the potential to damage a developing nervous system.”

By cosmicomics (not verified) on 11 May 2014 #permalink

That two studies presented by cosmicomics and Smarter... are interesting.
If only that two neonicotenoids are the problem, it means is not necessary prohibitions in my country, because here the bee colonies doesn't winterize.
Other fact is that we substitute the nicotenoids pesticides usually with organophosphates pesticides, to save costs, and if the neoniotenoids are forbidden, the organophosphates will be used.

I googled around looking for the program on bees and alfalfa. I found a youtube thing on carpenter bees being used to pollinate alfalfa. There was a comment that they were 20 times as efficient as honey bees.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 12 May 2014 #permalink

Honey bees evolved to pollinate widely disperses highly seasonal flowering rainforest trees in an environment with very effective honey predators. I'm not surprised they are not real efficient at temperate grasses!

I find this an interesting coincidence:

Neonicotinoids being used to stimulate rapid growth in plants.

Antibiotics being used to stimulate rapid growth in animals.

In both cases, a side-effect of these compounds is being used as a sought-after primary effect, analogous to off-list prescribing of drugs in human medicine (e.g. viagra started out as a medication for treating heart abnormalities, until a bunch of male patients reported "a curious side-effect").

In both cases there is a "second order side-effect" that gets dumped on the public as an externalized cost. In the case of antibiotics and resistant bacteria the 2nd order side-effect was foreseeable and was foreseen in detail. In the case of neonicotinoids, it probably wasn't.

I don't think it's reasonable to expect the makers of medications and insecticides etc. to have to test for 2nd order side-effects (as distinct from general medical and ecological safety) if for no other reason than combinatorial explosion. However it's entirely reasonable to regulate medicines, pesticides, etc., in such a manner as to absolutely prohibit off-list usage where public health or public safety are potentially at substantial risk, until/unless peer-reviewed research demonstrates safety and efficacy.

On the other hand, why should we worry?, just as long as there's enough food to feed the 1%, the rest of us should lose some weight anyway, right?

I don't believe Australia has a problem with CCD, so would be interesting to see if we use those neonicotinoids.

You are also welcome to come and collect our honey bees as they have become a problem in the Pilbara and Kimberley regions; they displace birds from tree hollows.

By Nathan Tetlaw (not verified) on 12 May 2014 #permalink

It is said that Australia has no CCD and yes, neonicotinoids are used there, but the agriculture industry is not the same, there are other differences.

I wonder what these pesticides and seed dressings are doing to the people that eat the produce.

By Al George (not verified) on 13 May 2014 #permalink

Warmer winters?

A lot of our 'honey' industry is in native forests; we have a lot of flowering trees, so perhaps we don't notice as we don't dose our forests with neonicotinoids.

By Nathan Tetlaw (not verified) on 13 May 2014 #permalink

Another point that usually is forgotten is about the emergence of CCD, that is not something new.
Mike the Mad Biologist has a year-old post Mike the Mad Biologist has a year-old post, about how the CCD is not a new phenomena, it can be traced back to 1869.
That's why my first intervention in this post was: "One of the reasons against the neonicotenoids is because the bee-killing phenomena is older than the use of neonicotenoids."

Edivimo, yes, I covered that here as well. The CCD issue may, the terminology might be arguesd about and a certain number of colonies collapse anyway so it may be a matter of degree

Just a small correction - this idea that neonicotinoids are being used to stimulate plant growth is incorrect.

Most neonicotinoids are water-soluble and break down slowly in the environment, so they can be taken up by the plant and provide protection from insects as the plant grows.

Greg, thank you for the article pointing out that neOnics do indeed present a problem for our pollinators;honeybees and butterflies included. I do think however that it is a bit caustic to say that honeybees are part of Big Ag although I think I understand your point.
There are many non Big Ag bee guardians, enthusiasts and just plain mashochistic folks who are now getting into beekeeping to help them out. Big Ag is enslaving the honeybee may bee more appropriate as they are doing with our entire agricultural system, i.e., gmo and roundup the franken bride and groom of monsanto creation.
We need to take back our food , implement a sound and non sensational food growing system that does not rely on toxic chemicals and laboratory created seeds that destroy the balance between soil, sun, water , plant and those that inhabit the ecosystem, including humans.
Far too Much damage has been done to our world and far too much is at stake here to allow the corporate takeover of our beloved honeybees and fellow planet inhabitants.
Big Ag can only be defeated if we the people care enough to stop them and we awaken from the slumber of ingesting too many unhealthy foods laced with lies from the industry.
The GMA and Monsanto want to keep us in the dark about what they are allowing by deregulating all kinds of nonsense. we don't need gmo, but the industry is trying hard to sell it and to hide its effects from U.S citizens.
GMO and Neonicotinoids have both been banned in many EU and other countries around the world.
One thing folks can do is join their local March Against Monsanto happening in virtually every city and small towns around the USA and the World.
Solidarity against agricultural slavery and supporting our seed sovereignty is important more than ever if honeybees and other pollinators are going to ever have a chance. That goes for us as well.

Maria, good points. Let me put my complaints I context. Some of my best friends are bee keepers. But the End Of Civilization level issue is not about small bee keepers or even honey producers, it is about the big contracts servicing the almond groves and such. A friend of mine grows corn in her yard to eat. When I talk about Bog Ag in Minnesota, I'm talking about corn, but not her!

What do we do if we've planted these big box plants in our gardens? How long will it take for the soil and/or other plants to recover? This is infuriating!

By Kristin Klein (not verified) on 03 Jul 2014 #permalink

The same symptom of CCD was experienced in France years ago, they labeled it "mad bee disease". They found that a pesticide named Gaucho and Poncho produced by Bayer was to blame. It started in 1994 when French farmers started using systemic pesticide treated seeds. They banned the use of it and the Bee problem stopped.. Go figure, now it is happening here and again Bayer is involved. In 2006 we started using systemic treated seeds and now we have the problem. Got to love corporate greed and the ignorance of the general population.

This is a "science blog"? How about some, you know, science? How about some citations and not just "I was told so"? Bee decline itself turned out to be bullshit, with numbers being higher than ever.

By Stephen Frost (not verified) on 06 May 2017 #permalink


Yes, this is a science blog. And, you are a troll.

Nonetheless, it is a good idea to keep up on the latest. The post you comment on here was written three years ago, and this is a dynamically changing situation.

Here is a more recent item that should get you up to speed on what is happening:


And here is some peer reviewed literature you might want to take a look at:


This recent paper done in your backyard says the jury is still out, since the ban in EU is still only three years old:


That will inform you, and others, but you are still probably going to remain a troll. Good luck with that!


"How about some citations and not just “I was told so”?"
followed by
"Bee decline itself turned out to be bullshit, with numbers being higher than ever."