Is there a future without neonicotinoids?


bee on OSROf course there is.

Debunking some of the myths

The agrochemical industry and farming leaders have been quoted as saying that the ban on neonicotinoids will cost UK wheat growers up to £450m
“the loss of this technology could lead to a yield decline of up to 20%. Without neonicotinoid seed treatment, the production of winter wheat would no longer be profitable for many farmers”.
and UK oilseed rape growers up to £170m in lost yield.

In the case of OSR the UK grows around 730,000ha so the claimed losses equate to £230 for every hectare of OSR in the UK and in the case of wheat the UK grows around 2m ha so the claimed losses are £225 for every hectare of wheat in the UK.

These industry claims are not credible and this report challenges the claims made by industry for the increased cost of pest control by comparing the cost of using neonicotinoid seed treatment plus insecticides against the cost of a bee friendly insecticide regime based on a beefriendly insecticide.

Below is an analysis of the costs to my farming business of the ban on neonicotinoids. As you will see below the headline cost to me of the neonicotinoid ban is £2-20/ha in OSR and a saving of £13/ha in wheat.

This report analysing the economic cost of the neonicotinoid ban and suggesting first steps towards developing a future pesticide regime that limits the impact on bees and beneficial insects is funded by Friends of the Earth.

The full Friends of the Earth report ‘Farmers need bees; bees need farmers’ is available at


The battle between farmers and crop pests goes back to the dawn of time but since the advent of spray applied insecticide and more recently the advent of seed applied insecticide the collateral damage from this battle has increasingly impacted on pollinators and other beneficial insects

It’s not the purpose of this report to apportion blame for the demise of the bee or indeed to identify the cause of the demise of the bee. It is the purpose of this report to identify and promote, in the short term, changes in farming practice that will mitigate the impact of modern farming practices on bees and pollinators whilst maintaining a practical and financially viable farming regime and, in the long term, propose the first steps towards developing a safe farmed environment for pollinators.

Maintaining financial viability of crops is dominated by risk management. With all the variables that impact on the financial viability of growing crops and producing food the successful farmer has to be a successful risk manager.

When applied to the control of crop pests successful risk management has to take into account the expected threat and be ready to manage the unexpected threat. It’s through this approach to crop protection that farmers are looking to avail themselves of insurance against the expected threat in the form of agrochemicals. However this risk adverse approach often leads to the application of insecticides before the threat arises as exemplified by the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments. Farmers are trying to assess the risk to their crops at the time of ordering the seed – often months in advance of planting and the realisation of the risk – with the result that farmers lose management control over the actual risk and control of the impact on their insecticide regime on pollinators and beneficial insects.

Coupled to the impact of pesticides on pollinators changes in modern farming practice, often supported by government policy and the public’s desire for plentiful cheap food, has led to a reduction in suitable habitat for pollinators within the farmed landscape.

Therefore any response to the plight of pollinators has to address these two core issues – bee friendly farm practice and the provision of habitat to support a flourishing pollinator population. And this within the context of a financially viable farming system. Many of our farming leaders believe that habitat provision and profitable farming are mutually exclusive……..

This report explores how these two goals can be mutually inclusive.


Making a cost comparison of the pesticide regimes in the comparison tables below based on the anticipated threat from pests in an autumn sown wheat crop it is possible to see that rather than the exaggerated losses claimed by the agrochemical industry the real cost per hectare to the wheat grower of adopting a bee friendly pesticide regime is in fact a saving of £13-30/ha or an additional profit of £26.6m to UK wheat growers

Neonicotinoid regime £24-40/ha
Bee friendly regime £11-10/ha

Neonicotinoid wheat regime based on typical pesticide regime of neonicotinoid seed treatment (£22-00/ha) plus autumn pyretroid followed by pyrethroid at grain fill.
Bee friendly regime based on two applications of Hallmark in autumn/winter and one application at grain fill.
Mechanical application costs in both regimes are ignored because the pesticide can be tank mixed with herbicides, fungicides and micronutrients that will be applied at the same time.

Oilseed Rape

In oilseed rape the increased cost per hectare to the grower to adopt a bee friendly pesticide regime is a more credible £2-20/ha or £1.6m to UK oilseed rape growers

Neonicotinoid regime £8-90/ha
Bee friendly regime £11-10/ha

The exaggerated claims of the agrochemical industry are also challenged in written evidence by the Association of Independent Crop Consultants to the Environmental Audit Committee
The loss of neonicotinoids in the combinable crop sector, oil seed rape, winter wheat and barley, would not, at this moment in time threaten crop viability but would make control of pests and the diseases they transmit more difficult.”

1.1 Cost comparison: neonicotinoid v conventional pest control in wheat and oilseed rape

This comparison is not intended as an exhaustive list of crop pests or crop protection products (for more go to HGCA website) but as a snapshot of the practical farming situation in the two major combining crops in the UK – wheat and oilseed rape.

Cereals and oilseed rape (OSR) make up the bulk of the combinable crop area in the UK approx 65%

Of these combinable crops winter wheat and oilseed rape offer the best gross margins to the grower and, as oilseed offers a good entry for winter wheat, there has been an increasing trend, driven by financial viability, towards a winter wheat /oilseed rape rotation and a move away from less profitable crops such as legumes and grass in the rotation – even though the agronomic benefits of a diverse crop rotation are well understood.

However increasing problems with weed control (especially blackgrass), crop pests (especially in oilseed rape) and soil borne disease (especially in oilseed rape) is putting pressure on the financial sustainability of the winter wheat /oilseed rape rotation.

This HGCA report covers yield limiting factors in current rotations
Summarised by GM Freeze at

A brief description of crop pests in the growing year:


A typical winter wheat crop is planted between mid-September and mid-October. The first crop pest active in the crop of significance to the grower is aphids. At this time of the year it is not the feeding of aphids on the crop that is can cause significant losses but that the aphids are a vector for a virus Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus (BYDV) that can severely reduce yields. However the virus infection cannot be detected in the growing crop until the typical stunting or dwarfing can be seen later in the growing year and this leads to a situation where growers have to control the virus vector, the aphid, to control this significant risk to the yield and profit potential of the crop.

Later planted winter wheat crops (ie after sugar beet) are at risk from bulb fly and if threshold levels are reached the only practical response is Dursban chlorpyrifos. Winter wheat planted into ground that has been left from earlier in the summer (ie after vining peas) is at risk from gout fly however the risk from gout fly is seasonal and localised. Often the best course of action based on local knowledge and a non-neonicotinoid seed treatment Austrel Plus.

The next period when crop pests pose a significant risk to the winter wheat crop is in summer when the ear has emerged and just before flowering when orange blossom midge is a seasonal and localised risk. Growers who recognise the risk potential can elect to plant wheat varieties that are resistant to orange blossom midge otherwise if the pest gets into the crop at the pre-flowering stage the only option is Dursban chlorpyrifos. It’s important to note that neonicotinoid seed treatments are not effective against orange blossom midge.

As the wheat ear develops and the grain sites start to fill the plant is at risk from feeding aphids and if threshold levels are met loses will occur. Aphid predators (ladybirds, beetles etc) if in sufficient numbers can deliver aphid control at below threshold levels but if aphid numbers exceed threshold numbers control is necessary using pyrethroid/cypermethrin.

Crop pests in the growing year

Oilseed Rape (OSR).

A typical OSR crop is planted in mid-August as quickly as possible following harvesting of the previous cereal crop. As the crop emerges it is vulnerable to a number of beetles that feed on the plant stripping leaves and cutting through the stem. Aphids are vectors for the beet western virus or turnip yellows virus. As with BYDV in wheat the viral infection is not evident until after the infection period and therefore growers have to take a precautionary approach and control the aphid carrying the virus or risk significant financial losses.

The next stage when pests pose a significant risk to the OSR crop is at flowering and pod formation when pollen beetle lay their eggs in the developing flower and the larvae feed on the flower and weevil lay their eggs in the pods and the developing larvae damage the pods. Its worth noting that neonicotinoid seed treatments are not effective after the five leaf stage (early spring). Again, if threshold levels of pests are evident, control is required. However increasing levels of pyrethroid resistant pollen beetle require an alternative control strategy.

Comparative costs: Insecticide costs in wheat and OSR using neonicotinoids

Note: Pesticide costs are actual costs from White Home Farm sourcing pesticides through a farmers’ buying group


Timing Product Cost £/ha Target
Autumn Neonicotinoid Redigo Deter 22-00 Aphids transmitting BYDV
  cypermethrin 1.20 ditto
Winter Austrel Plus seed treatment




Gout fly/ Wheat bulb fly
  Dursban 13.00 Orange blossom Midge
Summer Pyretroid/cypermethrin 1.20 Grain aphid

Manufacturer advises a belt and braces approach of neonicotinoid seed treatment plus spray application of cypermethrin in autumn to control aphids
In an typical autumn sown wheat crop the main risk would be from aphids in autumn carrying BYDV and grain aphids in summer feeding on the emerging ear giving an anticipated cost of £24-40/ha
The risk from wheat bulb fly is linked to later sowing date.
Gout fly is seasonal and localised – can be controlled using Austrel seed treatment
Orange Blossom midge: it should be noted that neonicotinoids do not protect against Orange Blossom Midge. The threat to the yield from orange blossom midge is seasonal and only at the pre flowering stage. Dow make annual prediction of the risk. Treatment using (Dursban) chlorpyrifos. Dursban has huge impact on environment and there are operator safety issues. To avoid the need to apply Dursban the grower can adopt existing Orange Blossom Midge resistant varieties which are readily available, are comparable in yield to non-resistant varieties, and seed is a similar price.

Oilseed Rape

Timing Product Cost/ha Target
Autumn Neonicotinoid Cruiser seed treatment 6.50 rape flea beetle/cabbage stem beetle/ western virus
  cypermethrin 1.20  
Spring pyrethroid 1.20 pollen beetle/ weevil

Manufacturer advises use of cypermethrin in support of neonicotinoid seed treatment
Neonicotinoid only effective up to 5 leaf stage – late winter – therefore not effective against pollen beetle in the spring
Threshold numbers apply for pollen beetle and weevil
Beet western yellows virus or turnip yellows virus is a serious and growing threat to the viability of OSR crops transmitted by aphid

1.2 Comparative costs: Bee friendly regime wheat and OSR post neonicotinoid ban

The following offers an option for growers in the aftermath of the ban on the use of neonicotinoids. However it should be stressed that the pesticides in the proposed bee friendly regime, whilst safe for bees, are not benign and do have a significant impact on other beneficial insects.

It must be stressed that this is at best a short-term option to help mitigate the impact of pesticides on pollinators but in the longer-term the government must invest in research to identify alternative pesticide regimes including resistant crop varieties and alternative pest management strategies.

Comparative costs : standard insecticide regime and ‘bee friendly’ regime post neonicotinoid ban


  Standard   Bee friendly    
  product Cost £/ha product Cost £/ha target
Autumn cypermethrin 1.15 Hallmark 3.70 Aphids/BYDV
Winter Dursban 13.00 Seed dressing 34.00 Bulb fly
  Cypermethrin/pyrethroid 1.15 Hallmark 3.70 Gout fly
Summer Dursban 13.00 Resistant wheat varieties 0 Orange blossom midge
  Cypermethrin/ pyrethroid 1.15 Hallmark 3.70 Grain aphid

Hallmark with Zeon technology – lambda-cyhalothrin – is safe to use with bees present in the crop but is not safe with beneficial beetles. Notably recent research has demonstrated that Hallmark Lamba-cyhalothrin causes low body weight in bumblebees leading to lower survival rates. Maverick may be a better but more expensive option – especially when bees will be working in the crop.

In a typical autumn sown wheat crop the main risk would be from aphids in autumn carrying BYDV and grain aphids in summer feeding on the emerging ear giving an anticipated cost of £11-10/ha

Use of threshold pest numbers (gout fly/bulb fly/grain aphid) to assess unacceptable levels of damage to crop. Gout fly is seasonal and localised. Wheat bulb fly is linked to later sowing date.

Growers cannot risk the financial impact of BYDV infection and therefore there is a requirement to control aphids (BYDV vectors) in the autumn

Oilseed rape

  Non-neonic   Bee friendly    
  product Cost £/ha product Cost£/ha target
autumn pyrethroid 1.70 Hallmark 3.70 rape flea beetle/cabbage stem beetle/ western virus
Spring Pyrethroid/cypermethrin 1.70 Hallmark 3.70 Pollen beetle
Summer Pyrethroid/cypermethrin 1.70 Hallmark 3.70 weevil

Oilseed rape when flowering offers a food source for pollinators and therefore the flowering period is particularly sensitive to pollinators. Impact on pollinators can be limited through management using threshold numbers and only applying insecticide when pollinators are unlikely to be working in the crop – cold days/early morning etc
There are total dose recommendations for the annual total usage of individual insecticides per hectare. If agronomists predict that the maximum annual recommendation of 4 doses per annum will be exceeded a pyrethroid insecticide can be substituted for Halmark/Maveric at a time of year when bees are dormant.
Mavrik – tau-fluvalinate – is safe for bees and offers alternative mode of action against pollen beetle if resistance to Hallmark is detected at a cost of £6.40/ha.
Hallmark is available as a generic formulation for £2.95/ha

2.1 Provision of on-farm bee habitat

One of the strongest arguments in favour of habitat provision for pollinators and a pollinator friendly environment within the cropped area is that it also provides habitat for insect predators and parasitoids.

The agri-environment ELS, HLS and OELS schemes go a long way to promote bee friendly practices on the margins of the cropped area. Farm4bioproject:

However the take up of these agri-environment schemes is slow. Recent attempts by the Campaign for the Farmed Environment to increase the numbers of landowners signing up to agri -environment schemes has met with limited success and it would appear that those farmers minded to access Pillar 2 (modulation) payments and support the environment through agri-environment schemes are already signed up .

There is growing evidence that bees are finding it difficult to find food sources at certain times of the year –this is being referred to as the ‘hungry gap’. There is much that farmers can do to address this hungry gap through changing farm practice to maximise food sources when wild flower margins are less likely to be flowering.

2.2 Identifying changes in farming practice that would reward both farmer and bee

Leaving space for nature in the uncropped/unproductive areas of the farmed environment supports not only pollinators but also a wide range of beneficial insects.
Summarised by GM Freeze

There is an element of ‘vanity farming’ often promoted by peer pressure that has landmanagers undertaking costly and unnecessary work to field margins. For instance the flailing off of field margins thus removing the grasses etc that provide overwinter habitat for beneficial insects and the annual maintenance of hedgerows thus removing the flowering stems and potential food source for pollinators and beneficial insects.

There is potentially an additional benefit for those landmanagers looking to gain income from shooting through the provision of habitat for breeding grey partridge and wild pheasant. (

2.3 Identify changes in cropping

Crop rotation is good practice and good business but the financial viability of individual crops within the rotation is forcing growers towards a tighter rotation based on wheat and oilseed rape.
And an increase in open flowering plants in the crop rotation would provide additional food source for pollinators.

In arable farming an increase in the planting of pulses (peas, beans and lupins) would have the additional benefit of expanding the crop rotation giving opportunities to control diseases, pests and pernicious weeds such as blackgrass – and deliver a free source of soil nitrogen.

In dairy and beef production the inclusion of clover in the grass sward delivers protein in the diet and between 150 -250 kg of free N per hectare (British Grassland Society) equivalent to a value between £40/ha and £67/ha and providing a valuable food source to pollinators

2.4 The Blame Culture

Worryingly there is increasing evidence that the blame culture is finding its way into farming – where’s there’s blame there’s a claim – with an increasing number of land managers looking to recoup crop losses from their advisors. The threat of blame is putting pressure of agronomists to ensure that their agronomy recommendations do not leave them open to blame. In practice this has led to a situation where agronomists are loath to risk waiting for evidence of crop pests causing damage before using an insecticide or recommending products that are bee friendly but less efficacious against the target pest preferring to adopt a prophylactic insecticide regime.

3 Suggestions for how Government and retailers could help

3.1 Rewarding those growers who adopt bee friendly practice through the marketplace. We already see growers receiving premiums and increased access to the marketplace through assurance schemes such as organic and LEAF. A scheme that rewards the producer for meeting bee-friendly farming criteria would help reward growers through the market place.

3.2 The second major avenue for rewarding responsible bee friendly practice is via the greening of the CAP and the Pillar 2 agro-environmental schemes being targeted at bee friendly in-crop management practice and provision of habitat for pollinators in uncropped areas.

3.3 The ‘UK Strategy for Agricultural Technologies’ offers the option for government to invest in research that benefits pollinators through reducing the need for insecticides to maintain crop profitability and productivity:
• research into farming practices that provide increased in-crop habitat for bees and pollinators whilst maintaining financial viability. For instance the benefits of adopting grass/clover swards to the dairy and meat industry and developing pulse crops that could offer growers the opportunity to adopt weed and pest control into the rotation whilst maintaining financial viability.
• research into crop varieties that mitigate the need for insecticides – eg the potential for BYDV tolerant wheat varieties or Turnip Yellows Virus tolerant OSR varieties
• research into varieties that demonstrate a resistance or tolerance to insect attack. Farmers already have access to orange blossom midge tolerant varieties and access to similar plants resistant to pest attack and pest borne disease would help mitigate insecticide use.
• research into the potential for push-pull technology or companion planting, successful in Africa against crop pests, to be adapted for UK farming conditions
• research into the ‘hungry gap’ and how farmers and landmanagers can maximise food sources for pollinators through practical changes in farm management.

3.4 Of paramount importance is the dissemination of the knowledge gained by our research establishments to the grower – sometimes referred to as ‘the knowledge chasm’. This also brings into question the value of the governments investment in research if the benefits of this research and knowledge is not made available to growers. With the demise of a nationwide DEFRA funded advice organization there is no obvious existing vehicle for the dissemination of this knowledge from research that can be trusted by the grower to offer unbiased advice. Therefore it falls to government to establish such a vehicle – although the Rural Payments Agency, as an organization that already has contact with all growers and producers, might be a potential candidate for this role.

3.5 Government has a role in defining the parameters for the blame culture through the development of clear guidelines for agronomists and landmanagers.

Next steps or who does what?

Organic production standards probably offer the ‘gold standard’ for bee friendly farming practice but given that more than 90% of farmers practice conventional farming techniques and use pesticides it’s important that any attempt to define a National Pollinator Strategy offers a practical and financially viable response for conventional farmers.

The availability of efficacious cheap insecticides has led to a mindset where insecticides are used as an insurance against possible loss rather than as a response to an identified loss.

However increasing resistance amongst crop pests to insecticides, coupled to the impact of insecticides against pollinators and beneficial insects, require a novel response, novel strategies and an increased level of management awareness and ability at farm level.

To achieve the desired increased management ability at farm level we need from research stations novel chemical and cultural bee-friendly responses that are environmentally sustainable, financially viable and supported by the marketplace and wider public

From plant breeders we need plants that exhibit tolerance or resistance to insect pests and insect borne diseases and viruses.

From plant breeders we need new financially viable varieties of mainstream crops (pea, beans, lupins, soya) that offer a rotational response to the threat of pests, disease and pernicious weeds, provide food for pollinators and address the problem of our livestock industry being dependent on imported soya.

From farmers we need a higher level of awareness of pest management and alternative strategies to pest control that does not impact on pollinators and beneficial insects.

From retailers and the marketplace we need financial rewards and preferential access to the consumer for the products of bee-friendly environmentally responsible farming practice

From government we need direction and funding for our public and private research institutions and plant breeders; funding for the dissemination of information to farmers and the food chain; funding for changes in agri-environment schemes and farming practices that will benefit pollinators; and a framework for, in the short term, the responsible use of pesticides and, in the longer term, an alternative financially viable response to crop pests.

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