The formulation makes the honey bee poison

Christopher A. Mullin, Jing Chen, Julia D. Fine, Maryann T. Frazier, James L. Frazier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

123 Scopus citations


Dr. Fumio Matsumura's legacy embraced a passion for exploring environmental impacts of agrochemicals on non-target species such as bees. Why most formulations are more toxic to bees than respective active ingredients and how pesticides interact to cause pollinator decline cannot be answered without understanding the prevailing environmental chemical background to which bees are exposed. Modern pesticide formulations and seed treatments, particularly when multiple active ingredients are blended, require proprietary adjuvants and inert ingredients to achieve high efficacy for targeted pests. Although we have found over 130 different pesticides and metabolites in beehive samples, no individual pesticide or amount correlates with recent bee declines. Recently we have shown that honey bees are sensitive to organosilicone surfactants, nonylphenol polyethoxylates and the solvent N-methyl-2-pyrrolidone (NMP), widespread co-formulants used in agrochemicals and frequent pollutants within the beehive. Effects include learning impairment for adult bees and chronic toxicity in larval feeding bioassays. Multi-billion pounds of formulation ingredients like NMP are used and released into US environments. These synthetic organic chemicals are generally recognized as safe, have no mandated tolerances, and residues remain largely unmonitored. In contrast to finding about 70% of the pesticide active ingredients searched for in our pesticide analysis of beehive samples, we have found 100% of the other formulation ingredients targeted for analysis. These 'inerts' overwhelm the chemical burden from active pesticide, drug and personal care ingredients with which they are formulated. Honey bees serve as an optimal terrestrial bioindicator to determine if 'the formulation and not just the dose makes the poison'.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)27-35
Number of pages9
JournalPesticide Biochemistry and Physiology
StatePublished - May 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Agronomy and Crop Science
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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