Neonicotinoid insecticides are successfully applied to control pests in a variety of agricultural crops; however, they may not only affect pest insects but also non-target organisms such as pollinators. This review summarizes, for the first time, 15 years of research on the hazards of neonicotinoids to bees including honey bees, bumble bees and solitary bees. The focus of the paper is on three different key aspects determining the risks of neonicotinoid field concentrations for bee populations: (1) the environmental neonicotinoid residue levels in plants, bees and bee products in relation to pesticide application, (2) the reported side-effects with special attention for sublethal effects, and (3) the usefulness for the evaluation of neonicotinoids of an already existing risk assessment scheme for systemic compounds. Although environmental residue levels of neonicotinoids were found to be lower than acute/chronic toxicity levels, there is still a lack of reliable data as most analyses were conducted near the detection limit and for only few crops. Many laboratory studies described lethal and sublethal effects of neonicotinoids on the foraging behavior, and learning and memory abilities of bees, while no effects were observed in field studies at field-realistic dosages. The proposed risk assessment scheme for systemic compounds was shown to be applicable to assess the risk for side-effects of neonicotinoids as it considers the effect on different life stages and different levels of biological organization (organism versus colony). Future research studies should be conducted with field-realistic concentrations, relevant exposure and evaluation durations. Molecular markers may be used to improve risk assessment by a better understanding of the mode of action (interaction with receptors) of neonicotinoids in bees leading to the identification of environmentally safer compounds. © Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012.