Neonicotinoids are a group of chemicals used to control harmful insects. They are systemic pesticides that are taken up by the plant and transported throughout the plant (leaves, flowers, roots and stems, as well as pollen and nectar). Neonicotinoids with approved agricultural uses in Australia include imidacloprid, clothianidin, thiamethoxam, thiacloprid, acetamiprid and dinotefuran.

Many factors affect bee health and productivity, including region-specific factors such as diet, disease, biosecurity and biodiversity, climate and chemical use which vary from country to country.

There have been a number of scientific studies published that suggest a link between the use of neonicotinoids and the declining health of honeybees.

Our role in regulating neonicotinoids in Australia

All neonicotinoids registered for use in Australia have previously been through the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA)’s chemical risk assessment process.

The APVMA uses an evidence-based, weight-of-evidence approach to risk assessments, which consider the full range of risks and take into account studies of the environment, including the impact on non-target species. The labels include instructions to minimise these risks by specifying use patterns and safety directions.

In 2014, the APVMA published an overview report on bee health and the use of neonicotinoids in Australia, which covered a broad range of issues affecting honey bee health in Australia and had a particular focus on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides.

Based on the level of concern, the APVMA commenced a chemical reconsideration of neonicotinoid insecticides in November 2019, to assess whether approved active constituents,  products containing neonicotinoids, and all associated label approvals continue to meet the safety criteria related to risks to the environment and human health.

How bees can be exposed to neonicotinoids

As outlined in the roadmap for insect pollinator risk assessments, bees can come into contact with neonicotinoids in a number of ways including:

  • contact with neonicotinoid dusts in the air when treated seeds are planted
  • consuming the pollen, nectar, or sap of plants grown from treated seed, or in treated soil
  • direct contact with sprays applied to flowering plants.

The use instructions on neonicotinoid product labels are designed to reduce the risk of these exposures.

You can learn more about reducing the risks of using neonicotinoids in our roadmap for insect pollinator risk assessments in Australia.

International restriction on neonicotinoids

In January 2020, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) published proposed interim decisions for acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam. In the proposed interim decisions, the USEPA is proposing the following: management measures to help keep pesticides on the intended target and reduce the amount used on crops associated with potential ecological risks; requiring the use of additional personal protective equipment to address potential occupational risks; restrictions on when pesticides can be applied to blooming crops in order to limit exposure to bees; language on the label that advises homeowners not to use neonicotinoid products; and cancelling spray uses of imidacloprid on residential turf due to health concerns.

In April 2019, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) published final pollinator re-evaluation decisions for the 3 neonicotinoids registered in Canada (imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam). The PMRA cancelled some uses and required mitigation measures (i.e. changes to the registration conditions) for others. The PMRA concluded that pollinator-related risks for all currently registered seed treatment uses, including those on bee-attractive crops such as canola, are acceptable.

In April 2018, the European Union (EU) Commission voted to restrict the use of 3 neonicotinoid compounds (imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam) to use in greenhouses only.

What happens next?

The APVMA is currently assessing whether the currently registered neonicotinoid products continue to meet the safety and labelling criteria in accordance with the Agvet Code. When the APVMA has completed its initial assessments, a proposed regulatory decision will be published.  A 3-month consultation period will follow to allow affected stakeholders and members of the public to provide feedback on the proposed decisions. Once the feedback has been considered, the APVMA will take appropriate regulatory action.

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