Tag Archives: pesticides

UK government allows emergency use of bee-harming pesticide

Image credit: Pixabay.

Bees and other pollinators play a key role in ensuring a healthy ecosystem and are also critical to our food security. However, they are in decline in many parts of the world, hit hard by the loss of habitats and loss and widespread use of toxic pesticides.

In recent years, many of these pesticides have been banned due to pressure from researchers and environmental groups. But they can also come back.

A nasty comeback

Thiamethoxam is a type of pesticide part of the group known as neonicotinoids, widely used around the world. However, in 2018, the most toxic ones, including thiamethoxam, were banned from outdoor use in the EU and the UK amid a growing list of evidence of the harm they cause to bees and other pollinators.

When poisoned by these chemicals, bees experience paralysis of their flight muscles and a failure in the homing behavior of foragers — which means less food for the colony. A single exposure is already enough to cause significant damage and Thiamethoxam is increasingly regarded as a problematic pesticide that is best banned. Neonicotinoids in general can also cause environmental contamination, leaching into soil and water and affecting the entire ecosystem.

However, these pesticides continue to be used even in banned places as countries can grant an “emergency derogation” when there’s the danger of a virus that can’t be contained by any other “reasonable” means. The UK is the most recent example, allowing the use of thiamethoxam for sugar beet against the advice of its own government experts.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened. In January 2021, the UK also planned a special derogation for the pesticide to save sugar beet plants from the beet yellow virus. However, there were lower levels of disease than expected and it was announced that the conditions for emergency use had not been met. This time, things look to be different.

Environmental and health organizations grouped under The Pesticide Collaboration have launched a legal challenge. The UK government decision, even temporary, isn’t consistent with halting wildlife decline, they argue. Farmers should be supported to reduce the reliance on harmful chemicals, finding alternative solutions, they added.

The sugar beet crisis

Over half the sugar consumed in the UK comes from sugar beet grown in England. A large amount of land is put aside every year to satisfy the country’s sugar demand, but climate change is now causing problems for the crop. This has resulted in pressure from farming lobby groups for the government to allow the use of harmful pesticides.

Unfortunately, this winter is much warmer than normal, and scientific modeling predicts a 68% level of virus incidence, which means the threshold for the use of the pesticide has been met, a government statement reads.

“The decision to approve an emergency authorization was not taken lightly and based on robust scientific assessment. We evaluate the risks very carefully and only grant temporary emergency authorizations for restricted pesticides in special circumstances when strict requirements are met and there are no alternatives,” a UK government spokesperson said in a statement.

There are about 3,000 farmers who grow sugar beet in the UK, according to the National Farmers Union (NFU). Farmers will be banned from growing flowering plans for 32 months after the sugar beet crop to minimize the risk to bees. NFU said in a statement that growers are relieved by the decision amid severe pest pressure across the country.

Campaigners argue only 5% of the pesticide actually reaches the crop, with the rest accumulating in the soil and causing a higher level of contamination than in pollen and nectar. This can then be a route of exposure for many organisms, including bee species that nest underground. It’s also absorbed by the roots of many plants visited by bees, such as wildflowers.  

“Allowing a bee-harming pesticide back into our fields is totally at odds with ministers’ so-called green ambitions, not to mention directly against the recommendation of their own scientists. This decision comes just two months after the government enshrined in law a target to halt species loss by 2030,” Sandra Bell, campaigner at Friends of the Earth said in a statement.

Situations like this are more likely to emerge as environmental regulations become tighter and climate change also puts additional pressure on agriculture. It remains to be seen what other countries will do in the UK’s position.

Most of UK’s fruits and vegetables contain a mixture of pesticides — but is this a concern?

UK citizens are being exposed to potentially harmful mixtures of pesticides that can currently be found in almost all grapes, oranges and herbs, according to a new report based on official government data. Researchers singled out the twelve fruit and vegetables most likely to contain a cocktail of pesticides, known as the dirty dozen.

Image credit: Flickr / Marcos Zion

Pesticides Action Network (PAN), a non-governmental network, found that between them, grapes, oranges, dried fruit, herbs, pears, peas, beans, okra, lettuce, beans, carrot, and mango all contained detectable levels from 122 different pesticides. The list includes 47 pesticides with links to cancer, 15 reproductive or developmental toxins that can affect sexual functions, and 17 cholinesterase inhibitors that can affect the respiratory system. 

The pesticides are also related to environmental concerns, PAN said. Half of the top 12 pesticides found are groundwater contaminants, meaning that they persist in water bodies, potentially impacting aquatic biodiversity or drinking water quality. The list also includes acetamiprid, a neonicotinoid that represents a threat to bee health.

“These figures highlight the wide array of chemicals that we are exposed to daily through our diets. While safety limits continue to be set for just one pesticide at a time, the evidence is growing that chemicals can combine to be more toxic,” Nick Mole from PAN said in a statement. “We have limited understanding of the long-term impact to human health.”

The most polluted food

PAN looked at the UK Government’s annual report on pesticide residues in food for 2020 and analyzed the data. The government tested last year 2,460 samples of 33 different types of food and tested for up to 371 pesticides. Almost 40% of the samples had a residue at or below the maximum acceptable level, while 2.5% were over that level.

Samples of potatoes, pumpkin, peas, pears, oranges, okra, kiwi, herbs, grapes, cauliflower, and beans had pesticides above the accepted level, according to the government data. Every fruit and vegetable analyzed contained more than one pesticide, especially oranges (86% of the samples), grapes (87%), and herbs and dried fruit (81%).

However, the data also shows a drop in the overall percentage of fruit and vegetables containing more than one pesticide, going from 48% in 2019 to 30% in 2020. PAN questioned the UK’s decision to not analyze this year strawberries, lemons, and pre-packed salad, which ranked on top of the list last year on the use of pesticides. 

The report also looked at starchy food and grains, specifically bread, rice, and rye. Almost 70% of the samples had pesticides but at or below the maximum acceptable level. Of the 162 samples of bread tested, 45 had more than one pesticide, glyphosate being the main one. More than half of the samples of rye also had more than one pesticide. 

“The UK Government only tests around 3,000 samples of food for pesticides each year”, Mole said in a statement. “They justify this by arguing that it’s unnecessary to test more because they run a risk-based system which focusses in on food items which are most likely to pose a threat. But actually they have failed to test three-quarters of last year’s produce of concern.”

The full government report can be accessed here. 

Cow manure and beer byproducts may replace harmful industrial pesticides while increasing yields

Organic byproducts from beer production and farming could be used as a technique to disinfect soils, preserve their microorganisms, and increase yields, according to a new study. Researchers replaced the use of potentially harmful conventional pesticides in lettuce crops in Spain and reported a 15% increased yield and higher soil respiration after one year.

The lettuce crops in Spain. Image credit: The researchers

Crop management involves pathogen control and the use of synthetic pesticides is the most common practice, but many of them can be harmful and cause environmental damages. Such negative attributes are of increasing concern, and therefore more attention is given by farmers to non-toxic approaches for soilborne pest control.

Among them, soil biodisinfestation, which includes the use of organic amendments, is widespread in pest management as an effective and healthy alternative for soil treatments. The term includes different approaches to control pests using organic matter as the main driver, with largely positive results against soilborne pathogens.

In a new study, researchers from the Neiker Basque Institute for Agricultural Research and Development in Spain investigated the use of fresh cow manure alongside agricultural by-products rapeseed cake and beer bagasse as biodisinfestation treatments. They tried its use in “Batavia” lettuce crops that are common in Spain. 

“Rapeseed cake and beer bagasse are two potential organic treatments which have shown really positive results in previous studies,” Maite Gandariasbeitia, lead author, said in a statement.  “Their high nitrogen content promotes the activity of beneficial microorganisms in the soil, which helps to break down organic matter and kill parasites that damage crops.”

The study was done in a commercial greenhouse located in the Basque Country, northern Spain. The greenhouse selected for the study was a poly-tunnel consisting of four tunnels, with lettuce monoculture. The lettuce varietal has been continuously cultivated in the same tunnels for the last 20 years. The plants were grown over a plastic cove.

The crops in the region have been historically affected by different soilborne pathogens, plant-parasitic nematodes (PPN) among them. PPNs are very diverse and can cause various damage to host plants. They penetrate a plant’s root tissue to lay their eggs and this negatively impacts root development, as crops can’t take up nutrients efficiently. 

Seeking to reduce these nematode populations and disinfect the soil, the researchers incorporated beer bagasse and rapeseed into the soil, alongside fresh cow manure as a potential organic treatment. They observed a significant reduction in the presence of PPNs after the first crop post-treatment, with a 15% higher yield compared to the control plots. 

But that wasn’t the only benefit. The researchers also noted a larger population of beneficial microorganisms in the soils thanks to the reduced use of industrial pesticides, as demonstrated by a much higher soil respiration rate. This shows that agricultural byproducts could be an effective treatment for soil parasites, while achieving a higher yield, the researchers said. 

“There are still many questions to answer so that we can gain a better understanding of what happens in the soil during and after these biodisinfestation treatments,” Gandariasbeitia said. “This can help us to really elucidate what characteristics we should be looking for in other potential organic treatments to be effective in tackling soil parasite populations.”

The study was published in the journal Frontiers. 

EU high court confirms ban on bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides

Following an appeal by the agrochemical company Bayer, the European Union’s highest court has now confirmed a partial ban on three neonicotinoid pesticides linked to harming bees, preventing their use on certain crops.

The EU’s Commission had banned the pesticides in 2018 but this couldn’t be enforced due to Bayer’s appeal until now.

Image credit: Flickr / Scott Haywood

The products in question (imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam) belong to a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, which are chemically similar to nicotine and target insects. They have come under fire for contributing to the decline of bees by disrupting their sense of orientation, memory, and mode of reproduction.

Neonicotinoids are used to coat seeds to protect them when they are sown — they’re essentially nerve agents meant to keep pests at bay. When the seed germinates, it spreads the pesticide throughout the plant, protecting it entirely from pests. But the substance also spreads through the rest of the plant, through the pollen and nectar, where it can be absorbed by unfortunate pollinators.

In 2013, the EU Commission severely restricted the use of these three neonicotinoids to protect honeybees, whose populations have been plummeting around the world. Despite the ban, countries found a loophole, issuing more than 200 emergency authorizations for the use of these pesticides between 2013 and 2019, an EU report showed last year.

But the loophole wasn’t enough for Bayer, which decided to file a full appeal against the EU’s ban.

The company argued the decision could have “far-reaching consequences” for the certainty and predictability of active substance approvals in the EU. It also said there was insufficient new scientific knowledge to justify the restrictions — something which many researchers would disagree with.

Apparently, the Court of Justice of the EU also disagreed. It confirmed that the Commission was within its rights to ban the use of neonicotinoids on bee-attractive crops and that, in case of uncertainty, it is also entitled to make such restrictions.

“It must be held that the arguments put forward by Bayer cannot, in any event, succeed,” the court ruling said.

Bayer was not happy with the news. A representative for Bayer told EURACTIV that the company is “disappointed that the merits of this case weren’t recognized by the court,” but claiming Bayer respects the European legislative process and accepts the decision. With the appeal, the company wanted the EU to re-consider some EU’s crop protection law interpretations.

Bayer reiterated that it stood by the safety of its products, claiming these have been approved by regulatory bodies worldwide and highlighting the “value that these products have for farmers in managing pests effectively”. The company will continue offering these pesticides in all other regions, now with the exception of the EU.

Meanwhile, Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Europe, one of the campaign groups that presented arguments to the court in defense of the ban, told EURACTIV that the ruling could accelerate the ban of other toxic pesticides in the bloc. Now, in case of doubts about a pesticide’s toxicity, the EU Commission could simply ban it, the group said. Other areas could also use the EU ruling as a stepping stone for their own bans.

Greenpeace EU legal strategist Andrea Carta said in a press statement that the ruling “reaffirmed that protecting nature and people’s health takes precedence over the narrow economic interests of powerful multinationals.” The ruling means that the EU has to ensure the safety of all pesticides, GM crops, and chemicals, she added.

Reviewing over 1,500 studies on the issue, a group of European researchers confirmed in a 2018 study that neonicotinoids pose a danger to wild bees and managed honey bees. The report found most of the damage doesn’t necessarily come through the nectar and pollen directly, but rather through secondary soil and water contamination.

Goodbye, pesticides? This new robot can kill 100,000 weeds per hour using lasers

Can lasers rid us of pesticides? According to Seattle-based company Carbon Robotics, they surely can. The company just presented a new generation of an “autonomous weeder,” a tractor-sized farming robot that uses cameras and lasers to kill weeds. And it’s already sold out.

Image credit: Carbon Robotics

Pesticides have become a common ally for farmers seeking to boost their production and rid their fields of unwanted weeds. But the widespread use of pesticides has turned them into a growing problem, as they can contaminate soil, water, turf, and other vegetation. They can kill weeds but are also harmful to other organisms such as birds, fish, and insects — sometimes, including humans.

That’s why many farmers are now moving away from the use of pesticides and are instead looking for alternative options. Consumers are also taking note, and demand for non-pesticide products is surging. While some move to organic production, others are embracing new technological developments. And this is where Carbon Robotics enters with its ground-breaking robots packed with lasers and cameras.

“AI and deep learning technology are creating efficiencies across a variety of industries and we’re excited to apply it to agriculture. Farmers, and others in the global food supply chain, are innovating now more than ever to keep the world fed,” Paul Mikesell, CEO of Carbon Robotics, said in a statement. “Our goal is to create tools to address weed management and elimination.”

The Autonomous Weeder safely and effectively drives through crop fields to identify, target, and eliminate weeds. Unlike other weeding technologies, the robots utilize high-power lasers to eradicate weeds through thermal energy, without disturbing the soil. This allows farmers to use fewer pesticides and reduce costs to remove unwanted plants.

The farming robot essentially looks like a large cube on wheels. As it drives itself down rows of crops, its 12 cameras scan the ground. An onboard computer, powered by AI, identifies weeds, and the robot’s carbon dioxide lasers then zap and kill the plants. It can eliminate more than 100,000 weeds per hour and weed 15 to 20 acres of crops in one day.

“The potential with these new robots is the highest I’ve seen with any technology as a farmer. I expect the robots to go mainstream because of how effectively they address some of farming’s most critical issues, including the overuse of chemicals, process efficiency, and labor. These robots work with a variety of crops,” James Johnson, a Carzalia Valley farmer, said in a statement.

For Carbon Robotics, farmers who deploy the robots will likely see a significant increase in crop yield and quality. The lack of herbicides and soil disruption paves the way for a regenerative approach, which leads to healthy crops and higher yields. Overall costs also decline, as the robots enable farmers to reduce the costs of manual labor and of inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers.

Incorporating the Autonomous Weeded also represents an economical path to organic farming, Carbon Robotics argued. One of the largest obstacles to organic farming is cost-effective weed control. The farming robot provides a solution to weed management that doesn’t require herbicides or an increase in manual labor, helping farmers be organic.

Still, the rise of automation in agriculture has raised the alarm for workers that rely on agriculture as a main source of income. Edgar Franks, political director at the union Familias Unidas por La Justicia, based in Burlington, Washington, told Seattle Times: “What’s going to happen to the workers who made the industry so profitable, all of a sudden to be kicked out?” Agriculture, like many fields, is finding itself at a potentially defining crossroad.

For now, Carbon Robotics sold its farming robots directly to farmers, mostly on the US West Coast so far. But it has already sold out for 2021, with new models for the 2022 growing season soon available for pre-order. The company said it was to improve further on the software side, giving farmers more access to data and real-time information.

Pesticides are affecting baby bees, study shows

Up to 40% of invertebrate pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, are facing extinction, according to UN estimates. The list of threats is large but mainly includes climate change, habitat decline and the use of pesticides in agriculture.

Now, researchers have found a new way through which pesticides are affecting bees: by hurting the brains of baby bees.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

In the new study, researchers at the Imperial College of London explain that pesticides can also disturb the brain of baby bees, which suffer the effects of food contaminated with pesticides brought by worker bees in the colony.

“Bee colonies act like superorganisms, so when toxins enter the colony, they have the potential to cause problems with the development of bees,” Richard Gill, author of the study, told CNN. “When young bees feed on food contaminated with pesticides it leads to less growth of parts of the brain, a permanent and irreversible effect.

To do the experiment, the researchers enriched the nectar obtained by bees with a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids in a concentration similar to that found in wildflowers. Then, they used that contaminated nectar in a bee colony that was set up in a laboratory.

The team waited for the bees to become adults and then tested their learning skills, first after three days and then after 12 days. Then, they compared the results with bees from colonies that hadn’t been fed with pesticides and that were fed with pesticides.

The learning ability of the bees that had been fed with nectar enriched with pesticides was significantly impaired, the results showed. The researchers did tests to see if the bees could associate a smell with a food reward, looking at the number of times out of 10 each did the task correctly.

“There has been growing evidence that pesticides can build up inside bee colonies. Our study reveals the risks to individuals being reared in such an environment, and that a colony’s future workforce can be affected weeks after they are first exposed,” Dylan Smith, also with the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial, told CNN.

The study also involved scanning the brains of up to 100 bees from different colonies, using a micro-CT scanning technology. The results showed that the bees exposed to the pesticides had a smaller volume of an important part of the insect brain, known as the mushroom body — a structure in insects brain known to be associated with olfactory learning and memory, among others.

The neonicotinoids used in the study are a type of pesticide very common in agriculture but with a clear negative effect on the health of bees, causing the death of whole swarms. For years, beekeepers have been warning over their effect, pushing for stronger regulations.

Fewer bees in the world can lead to the loss of biodiversity and even affect our food supply, as bees pollinate a large number of plants. More than 75% of the world’s food crops are estimated to depend to some extent on pollination by bees.

A European Union moratorium has restricted the application of three neonicotinoids to crops since 2013. Nevertheless, a study published last year showed residues of these insecticides can still be detected in rape nectar from 48% of the plots of studied fields in the EU.

Meanwhile, in the US the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned last year 12 products containing neonicotinoid, leaving 47 neonicotinoid-based products on the market. In 2017, beekeepers in the US reported losing about 40% of their hives, a trend that has continued since then.

The study was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society.

Pesticides linked to the collapse of fisheries in Japan

The recent collapse of two fisheries in Japan was found to be linked to the use of pesticides by nearby rice farmers, according to research, which warned similar impacts are likely to be found around the world.

A rice paddy in Japan. Credit Wikimedia Commons

The study, published in the journal Science, showed an immediate plunge in insect and plankton numbers in a large lake after the introduction of neonicotinoid pesticides to rice paddies. This was followed by the collapse of smelt and eel populations, which had been stable for decades but rely on the tiny creatures for food.

It was the first time a study revealed the effects of pesticides on fish. Previous studies in Europe have linked neonicotinoids to die-offs in other freshwater species including mayflies, dragonflies and snails and also to falling populations of farmland birds that feed on insects.

Prof Olaf Jensen, at Rutgers University in the US and not part of the research team, told The Guardian: “This study, although observational, presents compelling evidence. A fishery that was sustainable for decades collapsed within a year after farmers began using neonicotinoids. This is a large and astoundingly fast response.”

Researchers looked at data from Lake Shinji spanning the decade before and the period after the introduction of neonicotinoids in 1993, from which point the pesticides started running off into the lake. They found neonicotinoid concentrations in the water frequently exceeded levels that are toxic to aquatic invertebrates.

Amongst the worst affected, the midge Chironomus plumosus, an important food source for smelt, ranked the highest. It vanished completely from all 39 locations sampled in 2016, despite being abundant in 1982. Another important food source, an abundant zooplankton species, Sinocalanus tenellus, fell by 83%.

The study found annual catches of smelt fell 90% in the decade after neonicotinoids were introduced, compared with the decade before. Catches of eels dropped by 74% over the same time period.

“Several alternative explanations for the collapse were evaluated and rejected: invasive species, hypoxia, or changes in fish stocking cannot plausibly explain the observations,” said Jensen. Furthermore, catches of icefish, which do not rely on the affected invertebrates for food, remained unchanged.

The researchers noted that they also studied other factors that might have led to fishery collapses, such as nutrient depletion or changes in oxygen or salt concentrations. They report that they were not able to find any evidence showing that there might have been something other than pesticides killing the food fish ate leaving them to starve.

Polen close-up.

Neonicotinoid pesticides pose ‘a major danger to pollinating insects’

Neonicotinoids, one of the most widely-used pesticide classes, present a major danger to pollinating insects.

Polen close-up.

Image credits Hartmut Jaster.

A research team with members from Friends of the Earth, Toxicology Research International, and Pesticide Research Institute reports that neonicotinoids are far more toxic to insects, including those not targeted by agricultural practices, than prior industrial insecticides. All in all, this class of insecticides represents a major danger to pollinating insects, they conclude.

Full-spectrum insecticide

The team carried out a study of insecticide toxicity loading focusing on chemical pesticides that are used on agricultural lands in the U.S. They analyzed the impact of increased use of neonicotinoids on farming products in the country, noting that their use has increased dramatically in the past 20 years.

Neonicotinoids target the nervous systems of insects. They’re less toxic to humans than other insecticides and are quite cheap to make — so they’re very popular for agriculture.

However, the team notes that neonicotinoids are also much more toxic to all insects than previously-used pesticides — even those that our insecticides aren’t meant to kill. They also last a lot longer in the soil and are water-soluble, which means they travel from the soil to the water table when it rains.

The researchers worked with data on agricultural lands taken from a variety of sources, such as the National Agricultural Statistics Service. They report finding dramatic changes in the patterns of pesticide use over the last decades. Pyrethroids used to be the main pest-control compound,  but now neonicotinoids dominate.

There are three main neonicotinoids currently in use: imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam. Two are made by Bayer (which owns Monsanto) and the other by Syngenta. These compounds are used to coat seeds, as a spray on citrus trees, and as a soil drench of annuals. Soybeans and corn are the main crops on which neonicotinoids are used.

Finally the team report that multiple studies on this issue have concluded that neonicotinoids harm insects, particularly pollinators and the animals that eat them. They point out that the insecticide has been found in plant tissue, pollen and nectar, and even honeydew.

All in all, they conclude, neonicotinoids represent a major danger to pollinating insects, particularly bees.

The paper “An assessment of acute insecticide toxicity loading (AITL) of chemical pesticides used on agricultural land in the United States” has been published in the journal PLOS One.

Essential oils, a novel way to deal with a major pest

When finding their plant hosts, agricultural insect pest always seeks familiar scents. But they can also be repelled by odors from other plant species, according to new research, which offers a new framework for exploiting plant odors to repel insect pests.

Broccoli, one of the affected crops. Credit: Living in Monrovia (Flickr)


A team at the University of Vermont worked on the swede midge, a small fly which has become a problem for farmers from the Northeast that work with cabbage-family crops like broccoli and kale. They discovered that a set of essential oils were effective at repelling the midge, such as garlic and spearmint.

“People often think more aromatic plant oils, like mint, basil and lavender will repel insects, but usually there is no rhyme or reason for choosing,” says senior author Yolanda Chen. “It turns out that as we go along the family tree, plants that are more distantly related from the host plant are generally more repellent.”

In order to survive, the small fly feeds on the brassica plant family, which includes a set of popular vegetables such as cabbage and brussels sprouts. If the midge laid its eggs on the wrong plant, it would mean the death of its offspring, according to observations by the researchers.

The midge’s larvae affect the plant’s control system, causing distorted growth – such as brown scarring. But, unfortunately for farmers, they can’t observe the problem until it’s too late and the midge has dropped off the plant. The tiny fly is known to cause crop losses of up to 100% in some areas of the US and Canada.

Trying to deal with the midge, farmers have turned to insecticides, which has been associated with a decline in bees. Organic farmers found no methods and just stopped growing the vulnerable crops. This led to the team at Vermont University to find new methods to control the small fly.

“It’s hard to get away from using insecticides because they’re good at killing insects,” said lead author Chase Stratton, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at The Land Institute in Kansas. “But plants have been naturally defending against insect herbivores for millions of years. Why are we so arrogant to think we can do it better than plants?”

Stratton and her colleagues were able to identify essential oils from 18 different plants that vary in their degree of relatedness to brassica host crops. They hypothesized that oils from plants that are more distantly related to brassicas would have more diverse odors and be more repellent.

They spent time observing how midges acted when facing broccoli plants that had been sprayed with each of the essential oils. The small fly, they discovered, was less likely to lay eggs on broccoli plants that had been treated with essential oils, compared to the untreated plants.

“Biologically, it makes sense that midges would be able to detect and avoid these plants because the similar odors would make it easier for them to misinterpret these plants as hosts, which would be deadly for their offspring,” said Stratton. “For swede midge, garlic appears to be one of the most promising repellents, particularly because certified organic products using garlic are already available for growers.”

Countryside road.

Pesticide build-ups are contaminating Europe’s fields

Pesticide use has propelled agriculture to new heights of productivity. However, they’re also eating away at farmlands.

Countryside road.

Image via Pixabay.

Over the last 50 years or so, phytosanitary products have enjoyed wider and wider use in agriculture, especially across developed countries. This helped to bring productivity to levels unheard-of before — but, at least in the European Union, it also degraded the soils.

Putting the ‘pest’ in ‘pesticide’

A duo of scientists participating in the Diverfarming project at the University of Wageningen, Netherlands, report finding traces of pesticide compounds in European agricultural soil samples. Researchers Violette Geissen and Coen J. Ritsema retrieved and analyzed 317 samples of surface agricultural soils from 11 countries in Europe. The soils used in this study belonged to 6 different cropping systems.

All in all, 83% of the samples contained traces of pesticides; the range of such compounds was also pretty impressive — 76 different types of pesticides were identified in the samples. Roughly 58% of that percentage were mixes of pesticides, while the rest (25%) came from a single type of substance. Glyphosate, DDT (banned since the 1970s,) and broad-spectrum fungicides were the main compounds detected.

The discussion around pesticide use revolves roughly around two key themes: the surprising persistence of such compounds in the soil (which this study indicates) and their toxicity to non-objective (non-target) species. Considering that the team worked with surface soil samples specifically, the results point to the ease with which such compounds can become airborne due to air currents.

The Diverfarming project proposes a more rational use of land and other elements of agriculture — water, energy, fertilisers, machinery, and pesticides — to address this issue. Diverfarming is a project financed by the Horizon 2020 Programme of the European Commission, within the challenge of “Food Security, Sustainable Agriculture and Forestry, Marine, Maritime and Inland Water Research and the Bioeconomy,” which draws expertise from members in virtually every country in the Union.

The paper proposes a series of alternatives to current practices in agriculture to help preserve the soil microorganism balance and, by extension, its biodiversity and overall health. These range from the use of new non-persistent pesticides, bio-stimulants, organic composts, or crop diversification — which contributes to balanced insect communities and thus to the absence of pests.

According to the study, the presence of mixes of pesticide residues in the soil is more the rule than the exception, which illustrates the need to evaluate environmental risks in the case of these combined compounds to minimise their impact. The effects of such mixes on the soil need to be investigated further, the team reports.

The paper “Pesticide residues in European agricultural soils – A hidden reality unfolded” has been published in the journal Science of The Total Environment.

It’s official: pesticides are harming the bees

A new, comprehensive report from European scientists confirms what many researchers have already been warning about: a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids poses a danger to wild bees and managed honey bees. The report analyzed over 1,500 studies on the issue.

“This report certainly strengthens the case for further restrictions on neonicotinoid use,” entomologist Dave Goulson of the University of Sussex in Brighton, U.K., said in a statement.

Bees are going through a dramatic decline. Global populations are dwindling, we don’t know why, and we’re not exactly sure how to stop it. But more and more evidence is mounting that this is connected to neonicotinoids, the world’s most popular class of insecticides.

Neonicotinoids (also called neonics) are used to coat seeds to protect them when they are sown. They’re essentially nerve agents. When the seed germinates, it spreads the pesticide throughout the plant, protecting it entirely from pests. But the substance also spreads through the pollen and nectar, where it can be absorbed by unfortunate pollinators — particularly, bees.

Many studies have linked neonics to honey-bee colony collapse disorder (CCD) and a decline in birds due to a reduction in insect populations. Pesticide producers have contested the studies, however, saying that they are inconsistent and unrealistic. The new report found that most of the damage doesn’t necessarily come through the nectar and pollen directly, but rather through secondary soil and water contamination. The pesticides are spreading through the entire ecosystem, where they are causing widespread damage. While there was some variability in the study, the results were conclusive enough to support a total ban on these pesticides.

“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,” said Jose Tarazona, head of the European Food Safety Authority’s pesticides unit. “Some low risks have been identified, but overall the risk to the three types of bees we have assessed is confirmed.”

Furthermore, as the neonics spread and seep through the ecosystem, it’s only a matter of time before pests start developing resistance, Christopher Connolly of the University of Dundee School of Medicine in the United Kingdom noted in a statement.

The study only analyzed the impact of three neonicotinoids — clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam — all of which have been banned in the European Union but are still allowed widely used elsewhere in the world, including the US. The European Commission has proposed extending the ban to all pesticides in this class, but such measures haven’t been adopted thus far.

“This is strengthening the scientific basis for the Commission’s proposal to ban outdoor use of the three neonicotinoids,” according to a commission statement.

How to wash your apples to eliminate pesticides — according to science

How do you wash apples? Do you rinse them, thoroughly wash them, or just wipe them with your shirt? According to scientists, most methods don’t really do much to get rid of pesticides, but here’s what does: baking soda.

If your apples aren’t organic, there’s a very good chance they were sprayed with pesticides. Naturally, you want to ingest as little pesticide as possible, but how exactly do you do that? This study investigated the effectiveness of commercial and homemade washing agents in the removal of surface and internal pesticide residues from apples.

Most apples you buy are already washed. The industry standard (in the US and many other countries) is to wash them in a bleach solution for two minutes and then rinse them. However, this is mostly done to eliminate dust and kill off potential bacteria — it doesn’t really do much for pesticides.

Researchers applied two common pesticides to apples: Tiabendazole (a fungicide and parasiticide used primarily to control mold, blight, and other fungal diseases in fruits) and Phosmet (an insecticide used on plants and animals, mainly to control the codling moth). Both are commonly used in agricultural practice. Lili He, a chemist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, analyzed three washing techniques: with water, with the bleach solution, and with a 1 percent baking soda/water solution. The baking soda solution was the most effective at reducing pesticides. After 12 minutes, 80 percent of the thiabendazole was removed. After 15 minutes, 96 percent of the phosmet was also removed.

Removal of pesticide residues from fresh produce is important to reduce pesticide exposure to humans. Image credits: Yang et al (2017) / Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Mapping showed that thiabendazole penetrated the apple a bit deeper, which is why more of it remained inside the apple. Meanwhile, washing the apples with water or with the bleach solution wasn’t nearly as effective. Researchers were also surprised to see just how long it took for the pesticides to wash off. Even with the baking soda, a two minute wash did little to reduce overall pesticide content.

The overall effectiveness of the method to remove all pesticide residues diminished as pesticides penetrated deeper into the fruit. Researchers believe no surface washing technique can really eliminate pesticides which have already seeped inside the apple. However, there’s no need to panic just yet. While thiabendazole and phosmet might be toxic in very large quantities, levels you typically find in apples are completely safe, according to the EPA.

Journal Reference: Tianxi Yang , Jeffery Doherty, Bin Zhao, Amanda J. Kinchla, John M. Clark, and Lili He. Effectiveness of Commercial and Homemade Washing Agents in Removing Pesticide Residues on and in Apples.


bee pollinator

Pesticides linked to massive bee die off, largest study of its kind confirms

bee pollinator

Credit: Pixabay

Multiple investigations have linked a class of widely used pesticides called neonicotinoids with colony collapse disorder (CCD). Due to CCD, there are now only half as many honey-producing hives in the United States than there were in 1980. The situation for wild bees, which are the most important pollinators, thus vital elements of the ecosystem and the global food supply, is very similar. Now, the largest study of its kind analyzed bee populations over the last 18 years in the United Kingdom and found indeed that the neonicotinoids are wrecking havoc.

The time span involved in analyzing the data is really important here because it allowed Ben Woodcock, an ecological entomologist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in the U.K., to study the impact of neonicotinoids before these were introduced in the country in 2002. Another clever thing Woodcock and his colleagues did was to study wild bees that forage on pesticide treated rapeseed crops — a crop used to make canola oil which turns the countryside into a sea of yellow once they bloom. What makes rapeseed ideal for this sort of study is that some species enjoy foraging the plants, while others — among the 250 wild bee species in the UK and the 2,500 in the US — stay away.

So, the way the researchers designed their study provided both a baseline (measurements pre-2002), as well as a control to see the kind of influence these pesticides have on colony collapse disorder– a peculiar phenomenon that occurs when most bees leave the hive never to return, leaving behind the queen and some nursing bees.

All of this data, including plots of land known to harbor certain wild bee species, was incorporated into a model. This model didn’t allow the researchers to tell if the number of individual bees on a plot of land increased or decreased, but rather which species vanished or not. This might sound crude, but for the purpose of studying CCD, which can be as unforgiving as the capital punishment, this ought to be enough.

“The negative effects that have been reported previously do scale up to long-term, large-scale multi-species impacts that are harmful,” said Dr Nick Isaac, a co-author of the new paper told BBC.

“Neonicotinoids are harmful, we can be very confident about that and our mean correlation is three times more negative for foragers than for non-foragers.”

Ultimately, the researchers found mini-extinction events were three times more common in bees that foraged on the pesticide-laced rape crops than in those that didn’t. Like other studies that preceded the paper published in Nature Communications, it’s impossible to say for sure that the neonicotinoids are responsible for CCD, but the link is there and it’s pretty strong. And unlike previous studies, the current one looked at data from the field, not collected in labs.

Bayer Crop Science, a major manufacturer of neonicotinoid pesticides, was quick to take note of the study and issued a statement for the Washington Post saying:

“The authors chose to investigate only one potential factor, namely neonicotinoid insecticides,” the statement said. “This was chosen out of many different factors which may have an influence on the development of wild bees, for example landscape structures, climatic conditions, availability of specific foraging plants and nesting habitats. It is a well-known fact that the structure of agricultural landscapes in large parts of Europe has changed substantially in the last decades. The area of landscape structures available for nesting or foraging, especially for specialized species, has significantly declined, resulting in fewer habitats for pollinators.”

While Bayer seems to allude to science-based facts like the that indeed climate change and habitat destruction also contribute to CCD, the fact that the company doesn’t acknowledge how its business is affecting bees around the world is disheartening.

Since 2013, the European Union has banned the use of neonicotinoids, though some pesticides belonging to the class are still in use in the United Kingdom. The restrictions on chemicals like thiamethoxam, clothianidin and imidacloprid could be rolled back in early 2017 if a review currently in the works by the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) decides so. Mounting scientific evidence as well as two million petitioners initially led to the restrictions all around the EU, but the pesticide industry has heavily lobbied since, arguing that the ban costs farmers hundreds of millions and is unnecessary for bees. In the United States, there are currently no restrictions for neonicotinoids, despite the EPA has acknowledged the risks these pose to pollinators.



Neonicotinoid chemicals and bees

Pesticides threaten bees, birds and worms alike

A new study has shown that neurotoxic pesticides blamed for the huge drop in bee numbers are also equally affecting butterflies, worms, fish and birds.

Killing the Bees

Neonicotinoid chemicals and bees

Poor fellows! The decline of bees around the world is increasingly linked with neonicotinoid chemicals.

Analyzing two decades of research on the topic, they found out that two classes of pesticides – neonicotinoids and fipronil – show “clear evidence of harm”.

“We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment,” said Jean-Marc Bonmatin of France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, co-author of the report entitled the Worldwide Integrated Assessment.

These nerve-targeting poisons are supposed to be protecting food security – but that’s really the opposite of what they’re doing in the long run. Bees are responsible for pollinating a huge amount of the global food, and these pesticides are “imperilling the pollinators, habitat engineers and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem.”

In case you’re not aware, bee populations are dwindling. All around the world, bee populations are dropping more and more, and until recently, scientists still wasn’t sure why this was happening. Now, even though there isn’t a general consensus, there are very strong indications that it’s pesticides that trigger this drastic reduction in bee numbers. To make things even clearer, in countries which have banned these pesticides, bee numbers are starting to rise again.

More threats

But as huge as the bee damage is, other creatures are threatened just as much by the insecticides. As they seep into the underground or waters, neonics affect freshwater snails and water fleas, then birds, and finally fish, amphibians and certain microbes. They have also been linked with autism.

However, the most damage is done to terrestrial invertebrates such as earthworms. We don’t really think about earthworms, because, well, they’re not pretty, and most people don’t see them as useful – but that’s a shallow point of view. Earthworms are crucial in ecosystems, as they provide crucial soil-enrichment and aeration. With dropping worm populations, the local plants will be under even more stress, and the results will be devastating.

“The combination of their widescale use and inherent properties, has resulted in widespread contamination of agricultural soils, freshwater resources, wetlands, non-target vegetation, estuarine and coastal marine systems,” the authors wrote.


Photo of small native bee species Andrena bradleyi on a highbush blueberry flower. Click to enlarge. (Photo credit: Hannah Burrack.)

Measuring how effective certain insects are at pollinating

We’ve written extensively about the impending global disaster triggered by the crippling of bee populations worldwide at the hand of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Just recently, I wrote an article discussing the findings of a new paper that suggests the leading factors that cause CCD are most complex than previously thought – namely, a whole brew of pesticides and fungicides have been found to dramatically alter bee colonies. Now, North Carolina State University are proposing a set of guidelines for assessing the performance of pollinator species in order to determine which species are most important and should be prioritized for protection.

Photo of small native bee species Andrena bradleyi on a highbush blueberry flower. Click to enlarge. (Photo credit: Hannah Burrack.)

Photo of small native bee species Andrena bradleyi on a highbush blueberry flower. Click to enlarge. (Photo credit: Hannah Burrack.)

Whether we’re talking about flowers, vegetables or crops most of the pollinating is made by insect species. Clearly, insects play a key role in the biosphere, and the dramatic downfall of some of these pollinating species, namely bees, poses a dramatic threat to both plant life and the food chain. Which species are the best pollinators, though? This question may be important to answer to foster conservation efforts and better distribute resources to where they’re most needed or where these can be used most effectively.

“Widespread concerns over the fate of honey bees and other pollinators have led to increased efforts to understand which species are the most effective pollinators, since this has huge ramifications for the agriculture industry,” says Dr. Hannah Burrack, an associate professor of entomology at NC State and co-author of a paper on the new guidelines and related research. “However, various research efforts have taken a wide variety of approaches, making it difficult to compare results in a meaningful way.

“We’ve developed a set of metrics that we think offers a comprehensive overview of pollination efficiency, which would allow researchers to compare data from different crops and regions.”

The NC State study looked at four primary metrics when assessing pollinating capabilities of species.

  • Number of seeds produced for one flower.
  • Abundance, which measures the number of each type of bee observed in the area.
  • Weather behavior: how active is the bee species during various weather conditions (cold, cloudy, windy etc.)
  • Visitation rate: number of flowers visit function of the amount of time spent at each flower.

There’s no such thing as a perfect bee, apparently

 “The perfect bee would produce a lot of seeds and visit a lot of flowers, even in poor weather – and there would be a lot of them,” Burrack says. “But as far as we know, the perfect bee doesn’t exist.”

I pilot study was made at a site made up of  highbush blueberry crops in North Carolina. Small native bees had extremely high single-visit efficiency rates and were active during inclement weather, however it also found that th3se  did not have high abundance nor appear to have high visitation rates.

“This highlights the importance of incorporating multiple metrics,” says Dr. David Tarpy, an associate professor of entomology at NC State and co-author of the paper. “Because researchers looking only at visitation rates or abundance may think the small native species are unimportant, when they actually appear to be important pollinators for blueberry growers.”

It’s possible that using these metrics, scientists can make a pollinating species effectiveness measure for their own local ecosystem, and thus have a broader picture. By measuring these key metrics, it may be possible also to assess how pesticides or lack of them influence these metrics.

The findings were reported in a paper published in the journal  Environmental Entomology.


Honeybee dying population linked to pesticide

We’ve reported in the past about the frightening, ever growing cases of honeybee population dye-offs of the past few years, and while no immediate or long term plan has been effective thus far, it seems at least that scientists are identifying the causes. It’s been known for some time that some classes of pesticides are harmful to bees, but a new study recently publicized by scientists at University of Padova draws an ever stronger link between the two.

Honeybee Bees are absolutely crucial to the world’s ecosystem, as they pollinate crops, making them absolutely crucial. In the past few decades dwindling honeybee populations have reached alarming lows, in some extreme cases beekeepers claiming their whole hive culture dying off – a phenomenon called  Colony Collapse Disorder.

The study at hand focuses on a particular class of pesticides, long suspected to be harmful to a number of insects, namely neonicotinoids. This particular kind of pesticides are considered highly efficient because they cause paralysis in insects, but with little to any toxic effect on other animals. Since the technique was introduced in the late 1990s, in some parts of Europe, widespread deaths of honeybees have been reported, fact correlated by the study.

The scientists involved in the research believe it’s highly likely that bees flying near treated crops are met by clouds of insecticide created by automated planting machines, which  expel a burst of air with high concentrations of pesticide-coated particles.

Along with other pesticides, tracheal and Varroa mites, the Nosema fungus and a variety of viruses, neonicotinoids have found to be harmful to bee populations, fact which lead them to be banned in most European nations. One of the first to ban them is Germany, which already reporting progress in their honeybee colony numbers, along with Italy as well. Oddly enough, the Environmental Protection Agency in the US doesn’t seem to recognize any correlation between the pesticide and honeybee deaths, allowing their use without any kind of restrictions or limits.

“To EPA’s knowledge, none of the incidents that led to suspensions [in Europe] have been associated with Colony Collapse Disorder,” the agency said.

Pesticides: Germany bans chemicals linked to honeybee devastation


Photo by net_efekt

In what is a laudable action, Germany has banned a family of pesticides that are blamed for the deaths of millions of honeybees. This comes after honeybees have had numerous things to suffer from – from climate change to pesticides and diseases which caused millions or even billions of deaths.

The German Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) has suspended the registration for eight pesticide seed treatment products used in rapeseed oil and sweetcorn. In the United States a similar course of action is possible as several beekepers have sued the company.

“It’s a real bee emergency,” said Manfred Hederer, president of the German Professional Beekeepers’ Association. “50-60% of the bees have died on average and some beekeepers have lost all their hives.”

This is not the first time Bayer has been blamed for beekilling, despite the fact that it’s one of the world’s leading pesticide manufacturers with sales of €5.8bn (£4.6bn) in 2007. Philipp Mimkes, spokesman for the German-based Coalition Against Bayer Dangers, said:

“We have been pointing out the risks of neonicotinoids for almost 10 years now. This proves without a doubt that the chemicals can come into contact with bees and kill them. These pesticides shouldn’t be on the market.”