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Protect pollinators: Avoid neonicotinoids insecticides

bee on sedum

By Laura Bradshaw, Extension Master Naturalist serving Fulton, Mason, Peoria and Tazewell counties

The topic of the importance of pollinators is becoming more and more common. People are realizing the importance and taking action such as providing pollinator friendly plants and habitat. Learning more about insecticides and using them appropriately is another way to support pollinators.

What are neonicotinoids and what do they do?

Neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” are the most widely used insecticides in the world. They were initially touted as being less dangerous to humans than other classes of insecticides. People use them for fleas on their dogs and cats. However, they have devastating impacts on pollinators, beneficial insects, and aquatic invertebrates [1].

Neonicotinoid insecticides kill insects by affecting their central nervous system [2]. The target insects include wood borers, sapsuckers, and leaf chewers. These insecticides can be applied to and taken up into the plant in many ways, including treated seed, injected into tree trunks, incorporated in the soil, or applied to leaves.

The neonicotinoids are systemic, meaning they are transported throughout all the plant’s tissue. Because they are systemic, they can accumulate in the nectar and pollen where nontarget pollinator insects are exposed to them and experience lethal or harmful effects [3].

Effect on nontarget insects such as pollinators

Residues of neonicotinoids and their break-down metabolites may persist in the environment for months to several years [35]. These products are proven to be harmful or lethal to exposed pollinators [3]. Solitary bees might be accidentally introduced to neonicotinoids by constructing their nests with contaminated mud or plant pieces [3 ].  

Many complex factors interact, affecting the exposure of pollinators to neonicotinoids; however, their presence in the environment suggests that all kinds of nontarget organisms will be exposed to them at lethal or sublethal levels [35]. Some of the sublethal effects of neonicotinoids include reducing many things, including foraging ability, hive productivity of honeybees, reproduction, and a longer time to mature in solitary bees [3].

Most of the concern has been over bees, but butterflies, moths, wasps, flies, beetles, and other beneficial animals are also potentially in danger. In January 2020, the EPA released proposed decisions on neonicotinoids, including language on the pesticide label that advises homeowners not to use neonicotinoid products [6].

Pollinators support the reproduction of nearly 85% of the world’s flowering plants and 35% of crop production. The majority of pollinators are bees, wasps, flies, beetles, ants, butterflies, and moths [3] that can all be impacted by neonicotinoid use. Pollinators are essential for all of us. 

“We must find a balance, live sustainably, and make a fit ecosystem for creatures to flourish in our yards. It’s not easy, but we must keep trying to create a healthy ecosystem for our yard,” says Extension Master Naturalist Laura Bradshaw. 

What can you do about neonicotinoids?

  • Read the pesticide label carefully and understand its content.
    • Examples of neonicotinoids insecticide active ingredients include
      • Imidacloprid
      • Acetamiprid
      • Dinotefuran
      • Clothianidin
      • Thiamethoxam
    • These active ingredients are known by many commercial names and can be formulated as liquids, granules, and dusts.
    • Ask your lawn or tree care service if they might be using this class of insecticide.
  • Check the label for statements such as “this active ingredient is toxic to bees” either under “Environmental Hazards” or in a “Bee Advisory” box.
    • Look for the “bee sign” on the product label. The bee hazard icon and accompanying label information are devised to provide warnings and practices that will allow insecticides to be used to manage pests while safeguarding pollinators from exposure. 
  • Keep an eye on what the EPA is doing and be vocal with government officials as to how important it is to protect pollinators
  • Apply pesticides carefully, at labeled rates, and during labeled times (not during blooming).
    • More is not better.
    • Only apply where there is an immediate need, not because you are trying to prevent a future pest outbreak.
  • Make sure to include pollinator habitats in your landscape where pesticides are not used.
  • Seek and support nurseries and retail outlets that refrain from selling neonicotinoid insecticides and that label and sell neonicotinoid-free plants. Keep an eye out for labels like this and this.
  • Be vocal. Ask at your local nurseries if plants have been treated with these pesticides, and ask your local nursery to stop selling neonicotinoid products.
  • Consider buying plants at large retailers you determine have phased out the use of neonicotinoids and other products harmful to pollinators.
  • Find local or regional businesses that you can trust to have neonicotinoid free plants.
  • Grow your own plants! Collect the seeds, divide them, share them with your neighbors!  Be sure to follow Best Practices for Plant Sharing.

Print this and more information with Laura's Fact Sheet "The Homeowner versus Neonicotinoids."


2 Simon-Delso, N., Amaral-Rogers, V., Belzunces, L.P. et al. Systemic insecticides (neonicotinoids and fipronil): trends, uses, mode of action and metabolites. Environ Sci Pollut Res 22, 5–34 (2015).







Laura Bradshaw, Extension Master Naturalist serving Fulton, Mason, Peoria, and Tazewell counties

Laura D. Bradshaw has been an Extension Master Naturalist volunteer for Fulton, Mason, Peoria, and Tazwell Counties since 2018. Her most recent volunteer work has been to help establish an oak savanna and prairie vegetation at the Peoria County Juvenile Detention Center, but she also enjoys teaching and doing technical writing about the natural environment when opportunities arise.

She completed her Bachelor of Science degree in Agronomy - Crop Science at the University of Illinois and a Master of Science and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in Agronomy – Crop science with an emphasis on weed control at the University of Kentucky. She worked in herbicide research and development for Monsanto Company, taught at Illinois Central College (ICC), and worked for Sheridan Nursery. At ICC, she taught a wide variety of courses including botany, life science, agricultural business, and human anatomy and physiology. As a retiree, Laura enjoys her passions of photography, travel, exploring the Northwoods of Wisconsin, visiting her adult children, and advocating for natural ecosystems by helping to sustain or restore them.


ILRiverHort is a blog that helps people connect to nature and grow.