Insecticides are widely used to control pests in agriculture and insect vectors that transmit human diseases. However, these chemicals can have a negative effect on nontarget, beneficial organisms including bees. Discovery and deployment of selective insecticides is a major mission of modern toxicology and pest management. Pyrethroids exert their toxic action by acting on insect voltage-gated sodium channels. Honeybees and bumblebees are highly sensitive to most pyrethroids, but are resistant to a particular pyrethroid, tau-fluvalinate (τ-FVL). Because of its unique selectivity, τ-FVL is widely used to control not only agricultural pests but also varroa mites, the principal ectoparasite of honeybees. However, the mechanism of bee resistance to τ-FVL largely remains elusive. In this study, we functionally characterized the sodium channel BiNav1–1 from the common eastern bumblebee (
Bombus impatiens) in Xenopusoocytes and found that the BiNav1–1 channel is highly sensitive to six commonly used pyrethroids, but resistant to τ-FVL. Phylogenetic and mutational analyses revealed that three residues, which are conserved in sodium channels from 12 bee species, underlie resistance to τ-FVL or sensitivity to the other pyrethroids. Further computer modeling and mutagenesis uncovered four additional residues in the pyrethroid receptor sites that contribute to the unique selectivity of the bumblebee sodium channel to τ-FVL versus other pyrethroids. Our data contribute to understanding a long-standing enigma of selective pyrethroid toxicity in bees and may be used to guide future modification of pyrethroids to achieve highly selective control of pests with minimal effects on nontarget organisms.