Robert Di Lorenzo
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A sting in the tale for neonicotinoids

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Did you know that most fruits and nuts, including apples, are pollinated by insects, and that without pollination, they won’t grow? Every year, the weather warms and insects such as bees begin the pollination process that plants depend on, but in recent years, you may have noticed that there are fewer and fewer bees, which puts fruit and nut crops at risk. The world’s most widely used insecticides, neonicotinoids, may be to blame for this decline.

Nicotine has been widely used as a pesticide for hundreds of years, but its efficacy is limited because it degrades rapidly and doesn’t target specific insects. For this reason, neonicotinoids (which literally means “new nicotine-like insecticides”) were developed based on the nicotine sub-structure. Of the 7 commercially available neonicotinoids, 6 (imidacloprid, acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam) are commonly used for pest control in crops, while the seventh (nithiazine) is primarily used to control external parasites of livestock and pets, such as fleas. Unlike contact pesticides that are sprayed on crop surfaces, neonicotinoids, also known as “neonics,” are systemic, meaning they are taken up by the plant and transported to all its tissue, including roots, leaves and flowers, as well as its pollen and nectar. Neonics are designed to deter crop-chewing pests by attacking their nervous systems. However, neonicotinoids aren’t selective enough to distinguish between pests and non-harmful insects, and as a result, neonics are becoming increasingly harmful to all forms of wildlife, including pollinators, the most important of which are bees.

Why is there a specific concern for bees? Bees are one of the primary pollinators of native and agricultural crops. There are around 20,000 species of bees worldwide, and many of these species have undergone population declines, which has massive implications for food cost and supply. In addition, the global honey market was valued at $9.21 billion in 2020, with the food and beverage market accounting for 70% of global honey consumption. As demand for honey continues to increase, regulatory bodies are seeking to limit the use of insecticides, particularly neonicotinoids, to protect bees and mitigate increasing costs.

Video | Neonicotinoids Banned in EU: How They Harm Bees

In 2015, Ontario became the first jurisdiction in North America to enforce rules that aim to reduce the number of acres planted with neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seeds by 80% by 2017, and the province stood firm when it rejected a bid to overturn the ban in 2016. The Vancouver city council followed suit in September 2016, voting unanimously to ban the chemical.  The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to assess pesticide safety for bees and other pollinators, and it has taken action by implementing a policy in 2017 to protect bees from agricultural pesticides and by introducing measures such as proper pesticide labelling. Most neonicotinoids have been banned in the EU since 2013, with an almost total ban of the outdoor use of 3 chemicals (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam) in 2018. However, in early 2021, the EU granted emergency authorization for the use of products containing thiamethoxam when treating sugar beet seed. Learn more about regulations in different regions of the world here.

Neonicotinoids persist in the environment for several years after they are used and have the potential to bioaccumulate, and for these reasons, there is cause for concern about prolonged exposure. In addition, a team at the Harvard School of Public Health detected the residue of at least 1 neonicotinoid in nearly every fruit, vegetable and honey sample they analyzed, which isn’t an uncommon finding, unfortunately. The study points out that this widespread presence underscores the importance of assessing the dietary intake of neonics and their potential effects on human health.

Detecting pesticides in food

So, why does all this matter to us? Bans, prohibitions and regulations require compliance, and it all comes down to testing.

Robust LC-MS/MS solutions for pesticide analysis from SCIEX can be rapidly implemented in laboratories for neonic quantification with a high degree of sensitivity and selectivity. The main neonicotinoids (imidacloprid, acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam) can all be efficiently analyzed with speed, accuracy and precision using the X500R QTOF System. Details on a pesticide quantification method can be found in this helpful flyer, which also includes information on how to access a preview of a high-resolution MS/MS pesticide library and a free download of an extracted ion chromatograms (XIC) list to elevate your analysis.

Extra Reading
Chen, M., Tao, L., McLean, J., & Lu, C. Quantitative Analysis of Neonicotinoid Insecticide Residues in Foods: Implication for Dietary Exposures. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 62(26), 6082–6090, 2014 Jun 16; DOI: 10.1021/jf501397m 

Moffat, C., Buckland, S.T. Samson, A. McArthur, R. Chamosa Pino, V, Bollan. K. A, Huang, J. T.-J & Connolly, C. N. Neonicotinoids target distinct nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and neurons, leading to differential risks to bumblebees. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 24764, 2016 Apr 28; DOI: 10.1038/srep24764


For research use only. Not for use in diagnostic procedures.

Robert Di Lorenzo
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Robert Di Lorenzo
Staff Scientist Global Technical Marketing – Food and Cannabis

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