Neonicotinoid ban in Oz: To be or not to be?

By Gabrielle Stannus

Neonicotinoids have been attracting a lot of attention recently over the claim that they are killing bees, and thereby reducing the number of these essential crop pollinators. A complete ban on the outdoor use of three of these so-called “neonics” will come into effect in the European Union (EU) on 19 December. Is Australia following the EU’s lead?

What are neonicotinoids?
Neonicotinoids are a group of systemic insecticides taken up by the plant and transported throughout the plant leaves, flowers, roots and stems, as well as pollen and nectar. Neonicotinoids act as agonists of the insect nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR), affecting the central nervous system of insects, impairing their behaviour and leading to eventual paralysis and death 1 . As neonicotinoids are water-soluble, they enter a plant’s vascular tissues and foliage, providing protection to the plant against herbivorous insects. Neonicotinoids are used both commercially and domestically in pesticides, parasiticides, seed treatments (e.g. coatings) and are common in veterinary applications such as tick control and flea collars for pets.

What problems are they causing?
Only approximately 5% of the neonicotinoid active ingredient is taken up by crop plants and most instead disperses into the wider environment 2 . Although neonicotinoids are selective for insect nAChR over mammalian receptors, they are not very specific for any given insect species 1 . Insect species, including but not limited to bees, can come into with neonicotinoids in various ways:

  • Contact with neonicotinoid dusts that float into the air when seeds coated with insecticides are planted
  • Consuming the pollen, nector and guttation fluid of plants that have grown from the treated seed, or grown in soil sprayed with the chemicals
  • Direct contact with sprays applied to flowering plants 3 , e.g. during foliar application.

Experiments with individually neonicotinoid-treated bees have indicated behavioural impairments on navigation, foraging, odour learning and locomotion 1 .

Concerns in Europe
Concerned over mounting evidence suggesting the decline of bee colonies, the European Union severely restricted the use of plant protection products and treated seeds in 2013 containing three of these neonicotinoids (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam) to protect pollinator health 4 . The measure was based on a risk assessment conducted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in 2012. This regulation prohibited the use of these three neonicotinoids in bee-attractive crops (including maize, oilseed rape and sunflower) with the exception of uses in greenhouses, of treatment of some crops after flowering and of winter cereals.

European Union ban strengthened
Earlier this year, the European Commission further moved to completely ban the outdoor use of these three neonicotinoids, after EFSA identified several high risks for bees for several field uses.

Seeds treated with plant protection products containing clothianidin, imidacloprid or thiamethoxam are not to be placed on the market or used in any EU member countries, except where: (a) the seeds are intended to be used only in permanent greenhouses, and (b) the resulting crop stays within a permanent greenhouse during its entire life cycle 5 . In order to allow member states to transition, the prohibition will come into effect on 19 December 2018.

Two other neonicotinoids are also restricted for use in the EU. However, acetamiprid is still permitted for some outdoor uses in the EU as the EFSA has established that it poses a low risk to bees. The approval of the use of thiacloprid continues to undergo review given its endocrine disrupting activities.

Neonicotinoid use in Australia
In Australia, the use of these five neonicotinoids is regulated by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA). The APVMA has approved for use numerous products containing clothianidin (12), imidacloprid (317), thiamethoxam (40), acetamiprid (20) and thiacloprid (13) 6 . The APVMA has stated that they will not initiate a review into neonicotinoid use in Australia, claiming the available information shows that managed and wild honey bee populations are not in decline in this country 3 . So these neonicotinoids currently remain approved for use in horticulture here.

Despite APVMA’s continued approval of registered neonicotinoids, several businesses, adopting the use of the precautionary principle, have made their own decision to phase out on-the-shelf neonicotinoid-based insecticides under consumer pressure. Bunnings has also directed its production nursery systems to cease the application of neonicotinoids on plants supplied to them by the end of 2020.

NGIA stance
The NGIA believes that the APVMA is best positioned to determine impacts on chemical usage, including neonicotinoids, in this country. However, NGIA advises all users of any neonicotinoid as well as any other insecticide, herbicide, fungicide or pesticide product to continue to:

  • Always follow the application and safety instructions on the label and Material Safety Datasheet (MSD)
  • Contact the product manufacturer for more information
  • Ensure that only persons which have received appropriate and adequate training prepare and apply agrochemicals
  • Apply integrated pest management (IPM) principles to pest management to minimise off-target impacts

1. Grünewald, B 2017, ‘A perspective from academia’ in Heimbach, F, Schmuck, R, Grünewald, B, Campbell, P, Sappington, K, Steeger, T & Davies, LP, ‘The Challenge: Assessment of risks posed by systemic insecticides to hymenopteran pollinators: New perception when we move from laboratory via (semi‐)field to landscape scale testing?’, Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, vol. 35, no. 1, January 2017, pp17-18, viewed 7 November 2018,

2. Wood, TJ & Goulson, D 2017, ‘The environmental risks of neonicotinoid pesticides: a review of the evidence post 2013’, Environmental Science and Pollution Research International, vol. 24, iss. 21, pp.17285–17325

3. Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) 2018, Neonicotinoids use and honey bees, viewed 7 November 2018,

4. European Union 2013, ‘COMMISSION IMPLEMENTING REGULATION (EU) No 485/2013 of 24 May 2013’, Official Journal of the European Union, L 139/12, vol. 61, 25 May 2013, viewed 21 November 2018,

5. European Union 2018, Official Journal of the European Union, L 132, vol. 61, 30 May 2018, viewed 19 November 2018,

6. Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) 2018, Public Chemical Registration Information System Search, viewed 21 November 2018,;jsessionid=Gf8RIW-n7UojCzyhCtG4l4I1?p_auth=cXRP8MCi&p_p_id=pubcrisportlet_WAR_pubcrisportlet&p_p_lifecycle=1&p_p_state=normal&p_p_mode=view&p_p_col_id=column-1&p_p_col_pos=2&p_p_col_count=4&_pubcrisportlet_WAR_pubcrisportlet_javax.portlet.action=search (NB. Searches on “clothianidin”, “imidacloprid”, “thiamethoxam”, “acetamiprid”, “thiacloprid”)

Further reading
Nursery Pesticide Application Best Practice Manual: