Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

honey bees

Researchers found 75 percent of honey samples collected globally contained a pesticide shown to harm bees. (Photo: Pixabay/cc)

Tainted Honey: Bee-Poisoning Pesticides Found Globally

Lead researcher says there were "relatively few places where we did not find any" samples contaminated with neonics known to harm bees

Jessica Corbett

Raising further concerns about the global food production system, a new study found that bees worldwide are being widely exposed to dangerous agricultural chemicals, with 75 percent of honey samples from six continents testing positive for pesticides known to harm pollinators.

"What this shows is the magnitude of the contamination," the study's lead author, Edward Mitchell, a biology professor at the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland, told the Denver Post. He said there were "relatively few places where we did not find any" contaminated samples.

For the study, published in the journal Science, Mitchell's team of researchers examined nearly 200 samples for the five most commonly used neonicotinoid pesticides, or neonics.

They found:

  • in North America, 86 percent of samples from contained one or more neonicotinoid;
  • in Asia, 80 percent;
  • in Europe (where there is a partial ban), 79 percent;
  • in Africa 73 percent;
  • in and around Australia, 71 percent;
  • and in South America, 57 percent.

The Guardian mapped the global results.

Worldwide distribution of honey contamination

Although researchers believe the measured concentrations of neonicotinoids in the tested honey samples are not enough to harm humans, they warn that "a significant detrimental effect on bees is likely for a substantial proportion of the analyzed samples, as adult bees rely on honey for food, including during periods of overwintering or seasons without blossoming flowers."

Study co-author Alexandre Aebi, also from the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland, told BBC News that humans "would have to eat an awful lot of honey and other contaminated products to see an effect," but he thinks "it's a warning and it is a call for a precautionary principle."

"It is definitely scary for honeybees and other bees and useful insects."
— Alexandre Aebi, study co-author

Aebi said that he and the other researchers are especially concerned that so many samples contained two or more neonicotinoids. Nearly half of all the honey samples showed more than two types of neonics, and 10 percent had four or more. Overall, more than a third of the samples featured pesticides at levels known to harm bees.

When pollinators such as bees consume pollen and nectar that contains neonicotinoids, they have been shown to experience learning and memory problems, which can interfere with their ability to gather food. The impact can be so severe that it jeopardizes the health of the entire hive.

"The increasingly documented sublethal effects of neonicotinoid pesticides at environmentally relevant concentrations on bees," the researchers note, "include growth disorders, reduced efficiency of the immune system, neurological and cognitive disorders, respiratory and reproductive function, queen survival, foraging efficiency," and decreased homing capacity.

"It is definitely scary for honeybees and other bees and useful insects," Aebi said. "We have up to five molecules in one single sample. From a risk assessment point of view, the evaluation of the risk is made from one single compound in one test organism. So the cocktail is not tested. Mixed effects should be taken seriously."

The impact on bees of continuing to use these pesticides is expected to have widespread consequences.

"In 2014, a global assessment of neonicotinoids concluded that their widespread use was putting the global food production system at risk," the Guardian noted on Thursday. An updated assessment that is slated to appear in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research found even stronger evidence that the insecticides are harmful, and reportedly concludes: "The consequences are far reaching and cannot be ignored any longer."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Biden-Backed Aukus Deal Could Spell 'Disaster' for Climate Cooperation With China

One U.K. lawmaker said reaching a "positive outcome" at the upcoming talks in Glasgow "just got a whole lot harder."

Jon Queally ·


Exclusive: Jared Kushner's Family Firm Set to Unleash Eviction Wave Amid Pandemic

"Kushner is the poster child for ultra-rich landlords clamoring to boost their bottom line by kicking families to the curb, even if it comes at the expense of public health."

Jake Johnson ·


Patient Group Targets Pair of Democrats for 'Selling Us Out to Drug Companies'

"It makes me so angry that members of Congress are choosing Big Pharma over patients. It's unforgivable."

Jake Johnson ·


Judge Blocks Biden From Continuing 'Inhumane' Trump Policy to Deport Families

"This is not the end of the battle against this practice," said one rights group, "but it is a major step to ensure that the U.S. welcomes these asylum-seeking families—as we should."

Jessica Corbett ·


400+ Economists Press Congress to Permanently Expand Child Tax Credit

Such an expansion would "dramatically reduce childhood poverty in the United States," they said.

Andrea Germanos ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo