EU citizens are being asked to sign an online petition to speed up the phasing out of pesticide use in European agriculture.

The group behind the petition, Pesticide Action Network (PAN), which represents 40 NGOs, is calling on the European Commission to ban 3 pesticides: sulfoxaflor, cypermethrin and benfluralin. A series of scientific studies have established the toxicity of this new generation of neonicotinoids on honeybees and bumble bees. Banning sulfoxaflor has been on the table several times since early 2019, but a decision has yet to be made. And while the EU’s Green New Deal aims for a 50% reduction in pesticide use by 2030, individual member states have been kicking back. According to a 2020 report by the European Commission, only France, Germany and Denmark have set ‘useful’ targets for reducing pesticide use since the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive was adopted in 2009.

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) Credit: Ab H Baas, Source:

The neonicotinoid class of pesticides act as an agonist of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in the nervous systems of invertebrates such as aphids, causing uncontrolled muscle spasms, paralysis and death. However, they also impact non-target organisms such as bees in a myriad of ways including on neurophysiology, larvae development, moulting, adult longevity, immunology, navigation, feeding behavior and learning. It is for these reasons that another 3 neonicotinoids – imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam – were banned by the EU in 2018 after a 3-year moratorium. Although now banned outdoors, residues from their use are still having an impact. A new report from Irish researchers at TCD and DCU found that 70% of honey from Irish bees contains at least one neonicotinoid. And while such residues may pose no threat to human health, the concentrations have been shown to induce negative effects on honey and bumble bees.

Professor Jane Stout from TCD who is deputy chair of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, said: ‘These results suggest that bees and other beneficial insects are at risk of exposure to contaminants in their food across a range of managed habitats – not just in agricultural settings. And even though we found residues at low concentrations, prolonged exposure to sublethal levels of toxins can cause effects that are still not fully understood by scientists or regulators. Therefore, we shouldn’t relax restrictions on their use.’

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) Credit: Frank Dorsman, Source:

PAN Europe has written to the European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides, and Vice-President Frans Timmermans, stating the new substances have received a negative opinion from the European Food Safety Authority and ‘should be withdrawn as they do not fulfil the requirements laid down in the pesticide regulation.’

In Ireland, there are 16,000 hectares of oilseed rape on which neonicotinoids were being widely used, according to a 2013 Irish Times article, prior to the 2018 ban. Sulfoxaflor has been registered for use in 81 countries around the world.

When the lethal dose of a pesticide is applied, 50% of bees die within two days. However, while so-called ‘sub-lethal’ doses do not have an immediate killing effect, in 2016, scientists reported the first evidence that sub-lethal impacts of neonicotinoid exposure were linked to large-scale population extinctions of wild bee species.

Bombus cryptarum, the Cryptic white-tailed bee. Photo by Stephen Mulkearn
Bombus cryptarum, the Cryptic white-tailed bee. Photo by Stephen Mulkearn

Of the 99 species of bee in Ireland, one third are threatened with extinction, including six species which are critically endangered, according to a 2006 regional survey conducted by the National Biodiversity Data Centre’s Úna Fitzpatrick. We have 21 bumblebee species, 77 solitary bee species and 1 honeybee species. The first 2 groups are in decline by as much as 50%, while the latter, Apis mellifera, was then not yet evaluated.

The NBDC has recorded a 50% decline in the distribution of 42 bee species across Ireland. Take the great yellow bumblebee, Bombus distinguendus. Prior to the 1980s, the bee was to be found all over Ireland, from the east coast through the midlands to Fermanagh in the north and Cork and Kerry in the southwest. However, since the 1980s, as a result of a loss of its preferred habitat of flower-rich grasslands and hay meadows, the bee is only now to be found in the most western parts of Ireland among the last remaining pockets of preferred habitat, namely on the Aran Islands and along the west coast of Connemara (see image courtesy of National Biodiversity Data Centre).

Table 1: The Red List status of the 42 most threatened of our 99 bee species (Fitzpatrick et al., 2006)

Critically endangered (6 solitary species) Andrena humilis; Andrena marginata; Andrena trimmerana; Lasioglossum lativentre; Nomada argentata; Sphecodes gibbus.
Endangered (4 bumblebee and 6 solitary species) Bombus barbutellus; Bombus rupestris; Bombus distinguendus; Bombus sylvarum; Coelioxys elongata; Hylaeus brevicornis; Nomada goodeniana; Nomada obtusifrons; Nomada striata; Sphecodes ferruginatus.
Vulnerable (2 bumblebee and 12 solitary species) Andrena angustior; Andrena coitana; Andrena denticulata; Andrena fuscipes; Andrena nigroaenea; Andrena praecox; Andrena semilaevis; Bombus (P.) campestris; Bombus ruderarius; Colletes floralis; Hylaeus hyalinatus; Lasioglossum nitidiusculum; Lasioglossum rufitarse; Sphecodes hyalinatus.
Near Threatened (3 bumblebee and 9 solitary species) Andrena barbilabris; Andrena fucata; Bombus (P.) bohemicus; Bombus lapidarius; Bombus muscorum; Colletes similis; Halictus tumulorum; Megachile centuncularis; Megachile maritima; Megachile willughbiella; Nomada panzeri; Osmia aurulenta.
The Endangered Coelioxys elongata, Credit: Pieter van Breugel Source:

Scientists have recorded a 76% decrease in flying insects over the past 30 years. A 2019 German study conducted in 62 nature reserves stated that the fall in insect numbers needs to be given serious consideration in light of a decline in the number of other species that rely on insects as a source of food. Such studies, it has been suggested, show that we are now witnessing the beginning of a sixth mass extinction event. To sign the petition, go to















Written by Stephen Mulkearn, science writer and graduate ecologist.