Pesticides and honey bee poisoning

As pollinators of flowering crops, bees play an integral role in many primary production system, as well as being an important primary industry themselves.

The use of agricultural chemicals, such as pesticides, make bees vulnerable to poisoning and death. Both beekeepers and growers can take steps to help encourage safe pollination and manage the risk of bee poisoning. Most bee poisoning events occur because of a lack of communication and coordination between the chemical user and beekeepers.

How bee poisoning occurs

There are several ways that honey bee poisoning can occur, such as when:

  • a chemical was used on crops that are flowering, and foraging bees are exposed to contaminated foliage, nectar or pollen
  • a chemical was used on a crop that is not flowering, but bees are foraging other plants in the target area that are flowering
  • a chemical is directly applied to bees that are present in or flying over the target area
  • bees access water that contains pesticide residues, or
  • chemical spray drift occurs onto bees, hives or flowering plants.

Bees can also take contaminated pollen or nectar back to the hive and cause the poisoning and death of the entire colony.

If you suspect that bees have been poisoned, contact us immediately on 136 186.

It's an offence to misuse chemicals

Under the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals (Control of Use) Act 1992, it is an offence to use chemicals in a way that is prohibited by the directions on the label. Many agricultural chemicals, particularly insecticides, list statements that relate to bees under the label's Protection of Livestock section. For example, 'DO NOT apply where bees from managed hives are known to be foraging, and crops, weeds or cover crops are in flower at the time of spraying, or are expected to flower within 28 days (7 days for pastures and sorghum).'

Complying with the chemical label doesn't address all of the risks associated with using a chemical. Chemical users and beekeepers can help to address other risks by taking the extra steps below.

How landholders and chemical users can manage the risks

Using the principles of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), first try to look for alternative methods of pest control that don't involve chemicals (for example, slashing).

If you decide you must use chemicals:

  • conduct a risk assessment to identify the risks of spraying that must be addressed before spraying. For example, contact beekeepers in the area so they can take steps to minimise the risk to their bees
  • tell nearby beekeepers about your intention to spray at least 48 hours in advance so they can remove the hives from the target area if necessary
  • tell licensed spray contractors about hives located near the target area
  • comply with the label, including all relevant 'DO NOT' statements and the Directions for Use
  • spray in appropriate conditions to avoid spray drift onto sensitive areas, including potential sources of pollen and nectar. Continue to monitor weather conditions while spraying to make sure they remain appropriate
  • inspect the target area for foraging bees before you spray — some chemical labels include a requirement to not spray when managed bees are foraging
  • use buffer zones where appropriate
  • talk to your agronomist and pollinating beekeeper about chemicals that reduce the risk of poisoning (for example, one that has a short residual hazard to bees)
  • know that long-acting chemicals increase the chance of poisoning.

In times of emergencies, such as locust plagues,  you might have to adapt quickly and be forced to protect your crops and orchards by spraying at short notice. When this happens, it's essential that you take the time to consider the risks of spraying and that you communicate changes to your chemical program with beekeepers as soon as possible.

How beekeepers can manage the risks

To help manage the risk of poisoning to bees, beekeepers can:

  • work with the crop grower to come up with a chemical program that works for both parties before placing the hives for pollination. For example, make sure chemicals are applied well before you introduce bees to the crop
  • give your contact details to nearby landholders so you can be contacted if an issue occurs
  • mark your hives with your contact details so you can be contacted quickly if an issue occurs. This is important when the landholder is not present on the property and you need to be contacted in an emergency
  • don't place hives in areas where chemicals might regularly be used (for example, orchards or cropping paddocks)
  • notify neighbouring landholders if you must place hives in areas where chemicals might regularly be used
  • place hives in sheltered areas to reduce the risk of spray drift.
  • know how long chemical residues stick around after spraying and wait for the residual chemical to dissipate before returning bees to the area
  • place the hives in a temporary holding area far enough away from the crop while spraying occurs
  • ensure bees aren't accessing water contaminated with pesticide residues
  • inspect hives regularly so you can detect and report symptoms of bee poisoning early.

If you suspect that bees have been poisoned, contact us immediately on 136 186. In summer, bees can desiccate quickly. This can affect whether chemical residue testing is successful.

Page last updated: 02 Sep 2021