Banned Pesticide that Kills Bees is Allowed Again in the UK

Chemical authorized for emergency use despite EU-wide ban.

sugar beet fields in Cambridgeshire, England
Sugar beet fields in Cambridgeshire, England. Andrew Linscott / Getty Images

A pesticide containing a neonicotinoid that harms bees and other wildlife has been approved for emergency use in the U.K. for 2021. 

Despite a ban on the insecticide that encompassed all of the European Union two years ago, a product containing the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam has been authorized to treat sugar beet seeds due to a threat posed by a crop illness called virus yellows disease.

Neonicotinoids are a type of synthetic insecticide used to prevent insects from damaging crops. They are absorbed by plants, making them toxic to bees that absorb them in pollen and nectar. They also can wash off plants and seeds, traveling in waterways and polluting rivers and harming aquatic life.

In announcing the emergency authorization, the U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said, “Sugar beet is a non-flowering crop and the risks to bees from the sugar beet crop itself were assessed to be acceptable. The applicant recognised that risks could be posed to bees from flowering weeds in and around the crop and proposed to address this with the use of industry-recommended herbicide programmes to minimise the number of flowering weeds in treated sugar beet crops. This was considered to be acceptable.”

Conservationists are not happy with the decision.

“This was an opportunity to try to control the virus problem through careful crop management, instead after one good year and one bad year for sugar beet they are just reaching for the bottle to cure all ills,” Matt Shardlow, the chief executive of the invertebrate conservation group Buglife, tells Treehugger.

“Worse than that to combat the risk to insects from the insecticide they are proposing to spray wildflowers in and around the crop with herbicides so the bees can no longer suck poisonous nectar in wildflowers polluted with the insecticide.”

According to Buglife, toxic levels of neonicotinoids have been measured on roses, hogweed, violets, St. John’s wort, and clematis.

“Neonicotinoid seed treatments are yesterday’s technology, promising, but profoundly bad for the environment, this decision is regrettable and is a set-back for the bees and rivers that will be further polluted,” Shardlow says.

The Xerces Society, an international nonprofit that advocates for invertebrates and their habitats, released a statement to Treehugger:

“The Xerces Society is very disappointed that the U.K. is moving backward on this pesticide issue. Using Brexit as cover to restart use of highly toxic, systemic, long-lived insecticides is bad for the wildlife and people of Britain.”

The National Farmers’ Union tweeted a follow-up to the decision, explaining why the group felt it was necessary.