Bees: Pesticide restrictions must be extended to wheat - new Friends of the Earth report

EU ban on bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides must be extended to include wheat, not just flowering crops.
  Published:  05 Jan 2017    |      4 minute read

Current EU restrictions on neonicotinoid pesticides must be extended to wheat to protect bees and other wildlife, Friends of the Earth warns today (Thursday 5 January 2017) in a new report published at the Oxford Real Farming Conference [1,2,3].

Three neonicotinoid pesticides were banned on flowering crops in December 2013 after scientists concluded they posed a ”high acute risk” to honey bees when used on crops attractive to them. But these chemicals can still be used on other crops.

One of the restricted neonicotinoids (clothianidin) is widely used on wheat. In 2014 it was used on over 700,000 ha of wheat in the UK. This is greater than the total area of oilseed rape – a crop which is covered by the restrictions [4].

The Friends of the Earth report found that the use of clothianidin on wheat also posed a threat to bees and other wildlife, for example:

  • Neonicotinoids are normally applied as a coating to seeds. However over 80% of the chemical can leach into the soil, where it can be absorbed by other plants. High levels of neonicotinoids have been found in wildflowers next to wheat crops, and can enter flowering plants attractive to bees if they are grown after wheat. Bees can also be exposed to neonics due to dust drifting away from the crop when treated seeds are sown [5].
  • Studies have warned that birds could be harmed by eating seeds treated with neonicotinoids [6].
  • Global studies have found widespread presence of neonics in water and further studies have found evidence of harm to aquatic invertebrates, such as freshwater shrimp, which could have a knock on impact on fish, including salmon [7].
  • Earthworms, which are critical to soil health, are exposed to neonics in the soil. There is evidence that these pesticides have an impact on worm mortality, reproduction and behaviour [8].

Studies have also shown these chemicals are harming natural predators: the insects which farmers rely upon for pest control. Friends of the Earth is urging DEFRA Secretary of State, Andrea Leadsom – who addressed the Oxford Farming conference yesterday – to back the continuation of current restrictions on neonicotinoids, and to support an extension of the ban to cover wheat and all other crops. 18 wildlife and environment groups called for the restriction on neonicotinoids to be extended to wheat last month [9].

The minister is also being urged to ensure that farmers are supported to help wildlife, including cutting pesticide use, in a post-Brexit farming policy.

Friends of the Earth nature campaigner Sandra Bell said:

“There is increasing scientific evidence that the use of neonicotinoids on wheat poses a threat to our bees, birds and butterflies – current restrictions on these pesticides must be extended to cover this crop.

“We can’t afford to gamble with nature in this way if we are to carry on producing British food and safeguarding the health of our countryside.

“The UK government must back a complete ban on neonicotinoid pesticides – and commit to helping farmers to grow food without harming the environment as a central part of its post-Brexit farming policy.“


For more information contact the Friends of the Earth press office at [email protected] or 020 7566 1649/07718 394786 (out of hours – please don’t text this number)

Notes to editors:

  1. Friends of the Earth’s report.
  2. The report draws on a wealth of research and the practical experience of several case study farmers, and concludes that the use of clothianidin on wheat is an unnecessary risk. The report finds that there are effective non-chemical ways to control wheat pests, especially when combined in an Integrated Pest Management approach – using a range of non-chemical controls with pesticides used only as a last resort.
  3. Friends of the Earth’s report found that encouraging natural enemies, using resistant crop varieties and changing to Spring cropping were all effective ways to control the wheat pests targeted by neonicotinoids.
  4. In 2014 (the most recent year for which data is available) clothianidin seed treatments were used on 721,872 ha of wheat in the UK [Defra, 2014], which is about 38% of the wheat area grown. In the same year 675,000ha of oilseed rape were grown.
  5. Bees won’t be directly exposed to neonics on wheat because this crop is not bee pollinated. However, we now know that neonics are so persistent and mobile in the environment that use on a crop like wheat can still lead to a risk to bees. Between 80-95% of the pesticide does not get absorbed by the plan, but ends up in soil and water. As a result neonic residues have been found in wildflowers next to wheat crops . A new report from EFSA in October 2016 concluded that use of clothianidin seed treatments for wheat is a high risk to bees, or a risk can’t be excluded, because the neonic can be taken up by a following or adjacent bee pollinated crop. Furthermore, there is a high risk due to dust drift when the crop is drilled, which can end up on adjacent crops or wildflowers.
  6. Studies have found that neonics can harm birds such as house sparrows and grey partridge. Even though the law requires that treated seeds be drilled into the soil, observations by the RSPB and others show that inevitably some seeds are left on the surface where they can be eaten by birds.
  7. A study in Canada found neonics in most of the wetlands sampled in an intensively farmed landscape. Evidence that neonics may harm freshwater shrimp has led to concerns being raised by Salmon and Trout Conservation UK about indirect impacts on fish that rely on shrimp for food. The Angling Trust & Fish Legal is among the organisations calling for a permanent and extended ban on neonics.
  8. There is evidence that earthworms are more susceptible to neonics than other insecticides and a major review of insecticide use raised concerns that, because of the persistence and movement of neonics in the soil, earthworms will be exposed for extended periods of time (Worldwide Integrated Assessment (WIA) of the Impact of Systemic Pesticides on Biodiversity and Ecosystems, 2015).
  9. The 18 organisations signed an open letter on 1 December concluding that “The third anniversary of the neonics restrictions is Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom’s chance to catch up with scientific evidence and public opinion by keeping and extending the ban as part of properly protecting Britain’s bees and pollinating insects”

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