In a reversal of previous claims, researchers say neonicotinoids shouldn't be used on crops.

Credit: Mrs / Getty Images

Many people's only interaction with bees have been unpleasant stinging sessions. But the buzzing creatures are vital to our farming industry; they pollinate up to a third of the world's food supply. Yet, honey bees are in serious danger of dying out—with 44 percent of colonies lost in one recent year alone. And now, thanks to new research published this week in Science, we know the bees are facing another threat: the once-considered "safe" pesticides many farmers around the world use.

Neonicotinoids are a pesticide commonly used by farmers to fight pests that might otherwise their plants. (The pesticide is coated on seeds, such as corn and soybean seeds, before they are planted in the ground.) It's used across the U.S. and Europe, and the pesticide's main producer, Bayer, has long claimed it's safe for honeybees.

But, according to the new study, which examined bees across Europe, the insects are harmed by the use of neonicotinoids. In fact, in one test by the researchers, the bees that ate pollen contaminated with neonicotinoids—specifically, a neonicotinoid called clothianidin—had a 23 percent shorter lifespan than bees not exposed to the pesticide. Those same bees took a longer-than-normal 45 minutes to travel from the plants to their hives, which could mean that the bees' memories were also affected by the chemical. And they also struggled to spot and remove diseased bees from their hives—something bees do to protect healthy bees—leading to a slow decline in their population.

With these kind of results, it would make sense to switch up the pesticides we use to treat our plants, and many countries are (slowly) realizing it. In 2013, the European Union banned the use of neonicotinoids on some of its plants—and a permanent and complete ban has been floated in recent months. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is also investigating neonicotinoids' effect on the bee population; however, its review won't be complete until 2018, and any action it takes could be years away.