The most widely used pesticides in the world pose a serious threat to bees, according to a new analysis by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Experts have said the findings are likely to impact European Union policy on pesticides.
Published on Wednesday, EFSA’s assessment found that all outdoor uses of three neonicotinoid insecticides – clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam – threaten both wild bees and honeybees.
Neonicotinoids are a type of neuroactive pesticide that share chemical similarities with nicotine. The pesticides are significantly more toxic to invertebrates, such as insects, than they are to humans, mammals and birds. In bees, the pesticides have been shown to harm memory and lower queen numbers.
EFSA based its assessment on nearly 600 studies and information from diverse sources, including beekeeper and farmers’ associations, chemical companies, academia, NGOs and national authorities. European pesticide experts, who EFSA consulted prior to finalising its conclusions, supported the evaluation’s findings.
“The availability of such a substantial amount of data as well as the guidance has enabled us to produce very detailed conclusions,” said Jose Tarazona, head of EFSA’s pesticides unit.
“There is variability in the conclusions, due to factors such as the bee species, the intended use of the pesticide and the route of exposure. Some low risks have been identified, but overall the risk to the three types of bees we have assessed is confirmed.”
Bees are exposed to neonicotinoids in several different ways, which depend on the pesticide’s use. The three routes of exposure EFSA looked at were through residue in pollen and nectar of the treated crop, water consumption and dust that drifts during the sowing of seeds that have been treated with pesticides.
Created in 2002, EFSA provides independent advice to EU legislative and executive bodies, like the European Parliament and European Commission. Because EFSA serves as a scientific risk assessment body, the organisation did not make any recommendations regarding whether or not their findings warrant an EU-wide ban of neonicotinoids.
“Decisions regarding authorisations of regulated products, including pesticides… are the responsibility of the European Commission and member state authorities,” EFSA said about their findings.
Use of the three neonicotinoids included in the evaluation was restricted in the EU after EFSA published its last risk assessment in 2013.
According to The Guardian, EFSA’s latest conclusion “makes it highly likely that the neonicotinoid pesticides will be banned from all fields across the EU when nations vote on the issue next month.”
Numerous scientists and environmentalists welcomed EFSA’s assessment.
“This report certainly strengthens the case for further restrictions on neonicotinoid use across Europe,” said Dave Goulson, a professor at the University of Sussex.
“We have been playing Russian roulette with the future of our bees for far too long,” said Sandra Bell, nature campaigner at Friends of the Earth. She noted the UK has already pledged to prohibit the use of the three chemicals and urged other EU member states to “back a tougher ban.”
Others questioned the practicality of EFSA’s conclusions. “EFSA sadly continues to rely on a [bee risk guidance] document that is overly conservative, extremely impractical and would lead to a ban of most if not all insecticides, including organic products,” a spokesman for Syngenta, a chemical company that manufactures neonicotinoids, told The Guardian.
Next month, the EU’s Plant Animal Food and Feed Standing Committee will discuss a proposal to ban the three neonicotinoids.