IATE Term of the Week: Neonicotinoids

May 4, 2018 1:27 pm

In 1962, Silent Spring, a book written by biologist Rachel Carson, was revolutionary in that it made the American public aware of the fact that insecticides, and namely DDT, were harmful for the environment. This boosted the environmental movement in ways that are still noticeable. Back in 1972, the wave of awareness that this book had brought about one decade earlier prompted the ban of DDT for agricultural uses in the United States. And now, as recently as April 2018, a majority of the Member States of the EU have agreed on banning three insecticides, namely clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam. All of these belong to the chemical class of neonicotinoids.

The main aim of the ban is protecting the health of bees. Pollinators (bees are the most important pollinators, making up to three quarters of all of them worldwide) are exposed to factors that are believed to be depleting their populations, such as diseases and the destruction of flower-rich habitats. Now there is enough scientific evidence that neonicotinoids are even more toxic for bees than DDT was, and that they are detrimental for them in several ways. On an individual level, they impair the memory, the orientation skills, the learning skills and the behaviour of bees. On a colony level, they reduce the number of queen bees. All these factors affect the survival and the success of colonies. This has negative consequences not only for the colonies of bees but also for crops, as they depend heavily on these agents for effective pollination.

But what are neonicotinoids and what is their mechanism of action? As the etymology of the name implies, neonicotinoids are a new chemical class that includes compounds similar to nicotine. Instead of being applied on leaves, they are applied in such a way that the plants absorb them, so they are subsequently present in the pollen and nectar that the bees collect. These compounds are especially harmful for insects because they act on their central nervous system, paralyzing and killing them. No other animals are affected the same way insects are, so humans have taken advantage of this for agricultural and veterinary uses without the risk of eventual poisoning for either humans and pets. For example, these compounds are used in tick control and flea collars.

Since there has been evidence for years that these insecticides are severely affecting bees, the EU first imposed a restriction on their use in 2013, and nobody could temporarily use them in bee‑attractive crops under certain conditions. However, for researchers and defenders of bee protection, this measure was not effective enough. That is the reason why the European Food Safety Agency undertook an in-depth analysis of the research available for authorities to decide what to do with these insecticides. And the results proved the need to take further action, especially in a continent where the number of bee species is particularly high. This action will come into effect at the end of the current year, and it is a welcome measure for the future of both bees and crops.


Carrington, Damian. “Honey tests reveal global contamination by bee‑harming pesticides”. In The Guardian. Available on https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/05/honey-tests-reveal-global-contamination-by-bee-harming-pesticides [Last consulted: 3.5.2018]

European Commission. “Neonicotinoids”. Available on  https://ec.europa.eu/food/plant/pesticides/approval_active_substances/approval_renewal/neonicotinoids_en [Last consulted: 3.5.2018]

European Commission. “Introduction to bees”. Available on: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/conservation/species/redlist/bees/introduction.htm [Last consulted: 3.5.2018]

European Food Safety Agency. “Neonicotinoids: risks to bees confirmed”. Available on: https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/press/news/180228 [Last consulted: 3.5.2018]

Pesticide Action Network Europe. “Neonicotinoids: a historic day for the European Union”. Available on https://www.pan-europe.info/press-releases/2018/04/neonicotinoids-historic-day-european-union [Last consulted: 3.5.2018]

Save the Bees Coalition. “Why”. Available on https://www.beecoalition.eu/ [Last consulted: 3.5.2018]

Written by: M. Isabel Bolívar, Terminology trainee at the European Parliament since January 2018. Isabel is from Spain, she holds a Bachelor and a Master Degree in Translation and Interpreting from the University of Granada, and is specialized in scientific and medical translation. Her languages are English and French and, of course, Spanish.

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