Investigation of neonicotinoid compounds in plant and sediment material in the Bure Marshes, Norfolk

Investigation of neonicotinoid compounds in plant and sediment material in the Bure Marshes, Norfolk

Investigation of neonicotinoid compounds in plant and sediment material in the Bure Marshes, Norfolk

Lead Supervisor: Professor Kevin Hiscock 

Location: University of East Anglia, School of Environmental Sciences 

Duration: 6 weeks

Suitable undergraduate degrees: Environmental Sciences, Geography, Ecology, Environmental Chemistry, Analytical Chemistry

Project background

Neonicotinoids are active substances used in plant protection products to control harmful insects and are common as ectoparasiticides in veterinary applications such as tick control and flea collars for pets.  In the environment, neonicotinoids are taken up by plants where they become toxic to invertebrates, such as insects.  Neonicotinoids affect the central nervous system of insects, leading to eventual paralysis and death.  The EU banned all outdoor uses of neonicotinoids in April 2018 following research linking their use to harming bee health.  In England, emergency authorisation of the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam is permitted due to the risk posed by virus yellows, spread mainly by aphids, that can damage sugar beet crops.  

An analysis of 26 river sites in the UK in 2016 showed that 74% of monitored sites were found to be contaminated with neonicotinoids.  Rivers exceeding permitted limits were all in England with a cluster in eastern England.  High thiamethoxam concentrations indicated that the probable source of pollution was sugar beet fields.  In addition, Perkins et al. (2021) examined the occurrence of fipronil, fipronil metabolites and imidacloprid in 20 English rivers from 2016–18 as indicators of the potential contamination from the use of ectoparasiticides on pets.  The mean concentrations of fipronil and fipronil sulfone were 5.3 and 38.1 times their chronic toxicity limits, respectively. 

Current research at UEA is examining the concentrations of neonicotinoids in water samples from the Bure Marshes.  The Bure Marshes National Nature Reserve comprises an area of undrained wetland from open water to carr woodland with wet woods dominated by alder and sallow.  The reserve is noted for its rare insect species including the swallowtail butterfly and Norfolk hawker dragonfly.  However, anecdotal evidence reported by Natural England suggests a decline in aquatic insect abundance in recent years, in line with earlier research by Ewald et al. (2016) that showed the negative effect of foliar insecticide applications on aphid abundance. 

To extend the current research, the aim of this study is to sample plant and sediment material in the marshes to further understand the partitioning of neonicotinoids in the wetland system.  The objectives of this study are to design and conduct a sampling strategy for plant and sediment material and to use accelerated solvent extraction and analysis by mass spectrometry to measure concentrations of neonicotinoid compounds.  Field logistical support will be provided by Natural England and laboratory analysis will be carried out in the Science Faculty Analytical Facility.  The project offers the chance to work on a topic of national interest and to contribute to knowledge on the fate of neonicotinoids in aquatic environments. 

Ewald et al. (2016) Investigation of the impact of changes in pesticide use on invertebrate populations. Natural England Commissioned Report, NECR182. Natural England, York. 

Perkins et al. (2021) Potential role of veterinary flea products in widespread pesticide contamination of English rivers. Science of the Total Environment 755, 143560. 

Shardlow (2017) Neonicotinoid insecticides in British freshwaters: 2016 Water Framework Directive Watch List Monitoring Results and recommendations. Buglife, Peterborough, 62 pp. 


This is a two tiered application process.  Initial applicant selection will be made by project supervisors and a further interview (online) will be conducted by UEA members of ARIES on the afternoon of Tuesday 13th June.

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Click here for eligibility details and how to apply