Beekeepers have launched a lawsuit against the makers of neonicotinoid pesticides. Are their concerns justified?
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Sierra Club was funding the lawsuit against Syngenta AG and Bayer CropScience. UBC Public Affairs apologizes for the error.
Canadian beekeepers recently filed a class-action lawsuit against the makers of neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides that are coming under scrutiny. But do they have a case? UBC biochemistry researcher and apiarist Leonard Foster says these chemicals may not be great for bees, but they’re not necessarily the bogeyman they’re made out to be.
What are neonicotinoids?
Neonicotinoids are a class of chemical insecticides based on nicotine that have been around for more than a decade. They are essentially everywhere. Over a third (by mass) of all insecticides used in North America are from this class. What makes them a very good insecticide is that they are particularly toxic to insects, and so very little is required to kill. They are a systemic pesticide, which means that the plant absorbs the chemical into its system. You can apply these even at the seed stage, and the plant will have it in its system for the rest of its life.
Why has there been so much discussion about their harmful effects on bees?
There was a location in Germany where it was applied to corn, and beekeepers in the region observed a lot of die-offs. It was traced back to the improper use of neonicotinoids in corn planting, and it ballooned from there.
There have been a couple of big cases in Ontario, where seed hoppers for corn stirred up dust during planting, making for a very high local concentration of the insecticide. The other issue is that farmers have to clean out these hoppers afterwards, and in some cases the farmers were rinsing them out and the chemicals were being washed into the groundwater. Both the Ontario and German cases, as well as several other noted examples, resulted from bees being exposed to extremely high levels of the insecticides. In this light, the death of the bees is hardly surprising: insecticides are made to kill insects and bees are insects, after all.
People also started wondering whether very low levels of neonicotinoids could alter bee physiology or bee health. That is still very much an open question.
Do the beekeepers filing suit against Syngenta AG and Bayer CropScience have a case?
I don’t think they do. From a scientific point of view, the evidence is not there.
That being said, there are definitely die-offs that are attributable to these chemicals, and I think we have to change what we’re telling farmers about their use. A lot of die-offs could be prevented if they are applied differently.
Some of the agri-tech companies’ practices are a little bit unsavoury as well—they sell seeds treated with neonicotinoids more cheaply than untreated seeds, if they sell untreated seeds at all. It really pushes farmers to use the insecticides, even if the pest the chemical is designed to fight isn’t a problem in their particular area. It’s akin to overuse of antibiotics in humans, and the problems that have resulted from that.
UBC Associate Professor Leonard Foster is director of the Centre for High-Throughput Biology and CFI Advisor to the VP Research & International.