The coatings are sticky, and in order to keep seeds flowing freely in the vacuum systems used in planters, they are mixed with talc. Excess talc used in the process is released during planting and routine planter cleaning procedures.

"Given the rates of corn planting and talc usage, we are blowing large amounts of contaminated talc into the environment. The dust is quite light and appears to be quite mobile," Krupke said.

Krupke said the corn pollen that bees were bringing back to hives later in the year tested positive for neonicotinoids at levels roughly below 100 parts per billion.

"That's enough to kill bees if sufficient amounts are consumed, but it is not acutely toxic," he said.

On the other hand, the exhausted talc showed extremely high levels of the insecticides — up to about 700,000 times the lethal contact dose for a bee.

"Whatever was on the seed was being exhausted into the environment," Krupke said. "This material is so concentrated that even small amounts landing on flowering plants around a field can kill foragers or be transported to the hive in contaminated pollen. This might be why we found these insecticides in pollen that the bees had collected and brought back to their hives."

Krupke suggested that efforts could be made to limit or eliminate talc emissions during planting.

"That's the first target for corrective action," he said.

"It stands out as being an enormous source of potential environmental contamination, not just for honeybees, but for any insects living in or near these fields. The fact that these compounds can persist for months or years means that plants growing in these soils can take up these compounds in leaf tissue or pollen."

Although corn and soybean production does not require insect pollinators, that is not the case for most plants that provide food. Krupke said protecting bees benefits agriculture since most fruit, nut and vegetable crop plants depend upon honeybees for pollination.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the value of honeybees to commercial agriculture at $15 billion to $20 billion annually.

Hunt said he would continue to study the sublethal effects of neonicotinoids.

He said for bees that do not die from the insecticide there could be other effects, such as loss of homing ability or less resistance to disease or mites.

"I think we need to stop and try to understand the risks associated with these insecticides," Hunt said.

The North American Pollinator Protection Campaign and the USDA's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative funded the research.