Canada Moves to Ban Bee-Killing Pesticide and We Should Too

A Canadian bumblebee enjoying some well-earned pollen.
Credit: Rrburke

You may have missed it while you were putting the finishing touches on your green bean casserole, but last Wednesday, Health Canada—the Canadian government department with responsibility for that country's public health—issued a report proposing to ban almost all uses of the controversial neonicotinoid pesticide (or “neonic”) imidacloprid.

Of course, we know all about imidacloprid in the U.S.  The highly bee-toxic pesticide is one of the oldest neonics on the market and is also one of the most heavily used in the country, making it a threat to bees from coast to coast.  In fact, in the early part of this year, the EPA released its own “preliminary pollinator assessment” of the pesticide, finding it present in the pollen and nectar of citrus and cotton plants at levels expected to cause harm to bee hives.

While the Health Canada report only looked at aquatic insects (another government report on the risks to bees and other pollinators is underway), its findings about imidacloprid are unsurprising.  In a nutshell, here’s what we know about the pesticide:

  • It’s Toxic – By design, imidacloprid is toxic to insects and other invertebrates (which includes aquatic animals like crabs, lobsters, and crawfish).  It works by binding to certain receptors in nerve cells and overstimulating them, which can cause trembling and shaking, cognitive impairment, paralysis, and, eventually, death.  Because vertebrate animals have these same nerve receptors too, the Canadian study also found that use of the pesticide “may pose a risk to birds and small mammals.”
  • It’s Everywhere – Imidacloprid is used everywhere from your home garden to the endless fields of corn, soy, and other row crops—even in pet products designed to kill fleas and ticks.  From there, it often washes into the water supply, which is why the Canadian agency found the pesticide “frequently in surface water at levels well above concentrations that may result in toxic effects to insects.”  In the U.S., use of this pesticide has more than doubled since 2009. 
  • It’s Not Going Anywhere in a Hurry – Although it varies, imidacloprid generally stays in the environment for several years.  This means that it can continually build up as a result of year-after-year use, making an already toxic situation even worse. 

Ultimately, the Canadian agency recognized that continued widespread use of the pesticide was “unsustainable,” despite the country’s long-imposed label restrictions on how to use the pesticide.  Finding prevention to be the best cure, it proposed banning almost all uses of the pesticide, including for most agriculture and lawn care.

Canadian researchers also found that imidacloprid may be a risk to small birds, although more information is needed.
Credit: William H. Majoros

It’s important to note that the Canadian agency is proposing these actions before it finished assessing imidacloprid’s risk to bees and other pollinators. No doubt, that report will provide even more support that widespread use of the pesticide is dangerous and should be prevented.

It’s also worth noting that in the U.S. we already have scientific support for the bee-harming effects of imidacloprid when it comes to use on citrus and cotton crops (and while not all the science is in on soybeans, we do know that seed treatments with neonics, like imidacloprid, provide “little or no overall benefits to soybean production”). In fact, imidacloprid got such poor marks in EPA’s preliminary assessment that the agency stated at the time that it "could potentially take action" to "restrict or limit the use" of the chemical by the end of 2016. 

With little time to go now before we’re all singing Auld Lang Syne, EPA should make good on its aspirations, and move to protect bees and other pollinators from the dangerous and unecessary uses of imidacloprid and other bee-toxic neonics before it’s too late.