The Lowdown On Neonics

Neonicotinoid insecticides, or neonics for short, are the most widely used insecticides on the planet today, having replaced other pest control families such as the organophosphates (OPs), carbamates and, to some extent, the pyrethroids. Four or five main commercial active ingredients make up the neonic family, and while all are a bit different, they basically do the same things.

This new crop protection family was discovered in the 1980s, registered in Canada in the late 1990s and, depending on how you do the calculation, some 40 to 45 per cent of Canada’s agriculturally productive fields will receive some kind of neonic treatment in 2014.

Why so popular? Well, mostly because they’re highly effective on insect pests, can be delivered in a spray or coated on a seed (most is delivered on seeds in Canada), and are significantly safer to the applicator and the environment than the older insecticide families, especially the OPs and carbamates.

There is quite a bit of discussion in the media on the safety of neonics to bees and other pollinators. Much of it centres on the fact that many (but not all) of these products are toxic to bees.

But it’s problematic to assume that something is dangerous or risky in the world because tests in a lab show that it’s toxic to bees. Here’s an example: Say you’re picnicking in the Serengeti Plain in Africa with your family (could happen), and around the corner walks a very hungry lion. Are you in danger? Well, yes, because not only do you have a hazard (the hungry lion), you also have exposure to that hazard. On the other hand, if you’re walking with your family at the zoo, and you turn a corner and find yourself at the lions’ cage, there is substantially less danger. The hazard is still there, but the exposure is not. No exposure, no danger.

It’s the same with insecticides. If you do things to prevent bees from being exposed, then the potential risk to them is significantly reduced. That’s exactly the reason for insecticide labels, and for recommendations on how to use products properly.

One of the ways growers can reduce exposure to bees is to replace their seedbox lubricant, if they are using one. Typically, when using highly efficient negative pressure air seeders, growers ensure that single seeds are planted exactly the right distance apart with the help of a lubricant to keep seeds from sticking together. Historically, talc and graphite were used for this purpose, but recent research has shown that these materials may increase exposure of seed treatment dust to the environment.

Bayer CropScience has developed a new material (Bayer Fluency Agent, or BFA), which improves singulation of seeds, but doesn’t contribute nearly as much to environmental or fugitive dust. It’s an idea to help farmers retain an important crop protection tool while reducing exposure to bees.