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Learn about neonicotinoid insecticides and bees

bee and flowerJuly 2016

Neonicotinoids are a group of insecticides that act on the nervous system of insects. They are systemic insecticides, which means they move around plant tissues to protect the entire plant from insects. Neonicotinoids have been available for use in New Zealand for more than 20 years.

Internationally, there has been some concern that neonicotinoid insecticides accumulate in the pollen and nectar of treated plants, which may cause exposure and harm to pollinators, such as bees.

The use of neonicotinoids in New Zealand

Neonicotinoids are used to control insects that can damage some fruit, ornamental, cereal and vegetable crops. Like many chemicals, they come with risks as well as benefits. As New Zealand’s environmental regulator, it is the Environmental Protection Authority’s job to manage those risks.

The use of neonicotinoids in New Zealand has been strictly controlled for many years. Rules are in place to protect people and the environment, and include special measures solely to protect bees.

These rules include:

  • No spraying near hives. 

  • No spraying on crops likely to be visited by bees, or when bees are foraging.

  • No spraying when flowering crops or weeds are present in the treated area.

  • Avoid spraying budding or flowering plants. This restriction means people cannot use neonicotinoids on plants that are in flower, or even those that are going to flower soon.

In addition to this, the EPA keeps close contact with the National Beekeepers Association and the Bee Industry Group to monitor the welfare of bees.

Is New Zealand following best practice?

We take our responsibility to protect the environment very seriously. Our scientists review international developments and the latest research available through a wide range of scientific publications. We have very tight restrictions which have been in place for a number of years.

It’s been widely reported that the European Union (EU) has banned neonicotinoid insecticides. However, this is not correct. The EU has restricted the use of three neonicotinoid insecticides. These neonicotinoids – clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam – are restricted for use in seed treatment, soil application and foliar treatment on plants attractive to bees, and cereals in flower. These substances can still be used after a plant has flowered in the open air or in greenhouses at any time.

The EU is the only place that has restricted the use of specific neonicotinoids and this was in response to concerns about colony collapse disorder. Colony collapse disorder has not been seen in New Zealand and the EPA is confident that the rules we place on neonicotinoids protect our pollinators.

We require applicants seeking approval for new insecticides to provide robust data about the composition of the substance, any impurities in the substance and about the use of the substance. We also demand a high level of scientific evidence about the safety and effect of such insecticides before considering them for approval. In June 2014, the EPA declined an application for a seed treatment that contained a neonicotinoid where the applicant was unable to demonstrate that it could be used in a way to sufficiently protect people and the environment.

What else is being done to protect our bees and other pollinators?

The OECD has initiated the Pollinator Incidents Information System to record and share pollinator incidents with regulators throughout the OECD.

As an OECD member country, New Zealand has introduced this system to monitor the situation here. The EPA has taken responsibility for reporting pollinator incidents back to the OECD. This system will enable us to compare what’s happening in New Zealand with other countries, and to identify whether we need to take a different course of action to ensure our pollinators are protected.

To meet this commitment, the EPA needs help from beekeepers and other people who observe a pollinator incident to report it as quickly as possible.

Is it likely neonicotinoids will be banned?

After a substance has been approved for use, the EPA continues to monitor international developments and the latest available research to keep up to date. We also keep in contact with key stakeholders concerned about the wellbeing of pollinators.

If there was a growing body of evidence that a substance was causing harm or if an overseas regulator stopped using a particular substance, the EPA could reassess the substance to see if it should continue to be used in New Zealand. A reassessment can result in an approval being cancelled or having more strict rules placed on the substance.

Any person can make an application to have a substance reassessed. New relevant information needs to be presented as grounds for the reassessment and fees may apply.


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