You’ve probably heard about them — the ubiquitous insecticide that lurks within the plant and isn’t sprayed on like traditional pesticides. Neonicotinoids, as the name suggests, are similar in composition to nicotine and cause certain neurological receptors to be over-stimulated in insects. As a result, bugs that feast on plant tissue that has absorbed the chemical soon incur neurological damage, which can cause paralysis and death. This systemic type of pesticide, which includes imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, and clothianidin, is applied to seeds and absorbed into the plant as it grows, creating an life-long resistance to mostly corn- and soybean-hungry insects. Throughout the European Union, they’re also applied to sunflowers, oil seed rape (canola) and sugar beets.

While honeybees aren’t exactly known for their green-leaf appetites, several studies have delved into the affects of neonics in plant nectar and pollen, as well as “dust dispersal” of the chemical when planting treated seeds. In fact, some studies have drawn the link between this type of systemic pesticide and Colony Collapse Disorder. The entire issue has been a point of contention for the European Union. More recently, several farmers in the U.S. have also banded together and filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency, calling for stricter regulations on the use of these insecticides.

Already, four countries in the European Union have imposed restrictions on certain types of neonicotinoids. France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia have either suspended neonic seed treatments temporarily or permanently, linking the chemical to large-scale honeybee deaths.

As Italian authorities further examined the relationship between these pesticides and Colony Collapse Disorder, the European Commission caught wind of the study and enlisted the European Food Safety Authority to assess the scientific processes and findings. The European Food Safety Authority report, which unearthed more data gaps than concrete evidence, did however conclude “lethal effects” were observed when honeybees were exposed to neonics found in field dust when planting with a conventional seeder.

After the European Food Safety Authority presented its findings on Jan. 13, the European Commission proposed a two-year ban on the application of imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, and clothianidin on corn, oil seed rape (canola), apples, carrots, strawberries and other flowering crops. But put to a vote by member states on March 15, the ban did not move forward because the proposal failed to receive a qualified majority — netting 13 for, nine against and two abstentions. Germany and the UK abstained.

There’s no question chemical industries that produce neonicotinoids, such as Syngenta and Bayer CropScience, would rather not have their most widely-used insecticide banned throughout an entire continent. In a magnanimous gesture to “help unlock [the] EU stalemate on bee health,” Syngenta put out a statement aiming to set the record straight. Syngenta’s chief operating officer stated “Banning these products would not save a single hive and it is time that everyone focused on addressing the real causes of declining bee populations. The plan is based on our confidence in the safety of our products and on our historical commitment to improving the environment for bees.”

On the one hand Syngenta claims its chemical is not at all linked to honeybee deaths. Yet its plan to promote bee health, oddly enough, includes reducing the dust that occurs when planting neonicotinoid-treated seeds. This is the same dust the European Food Safety Authority found to be lethal to honeybees.

With mounting evidence, and a fairly damning master plan from Syngenta to “help” bees, it’s a bit puzzling why both Germany and the UK abstained from the March vote. Keep in mind Germany even went so far as to temporarily suspend seed treatment with neonics — later lifting most of the ban except the use of clothianidin on corn, which remains suspended. It also just so happens Bayer CropScience is headquartered in Monheim, Germany and, fun fact, the “bee-friendly” branch drew in 8.38 billion Euros in sales in 2012, according to Bayer’s annual report.

Asked about her abstention, a UK official claimed the European Food Safety Authority study did not provide enough “sound scientific evidence” to be provoke a yay or a nay.

Despite the ban’s less-than-promising endorsement, there’s still hope for European honeybees. On March 19 the European Commission announced it would take the decision to the appeals committee, in an effort to “further endeavour to find solutions which command the widest possible support.” Whether or not the ban will retain its tough one-two punch on neonics remains to be seen.

April 6, 2013