A portion of applied pesticides runs off agricultural fields and is transported through surface waters. In this study, the behaviour of 39 pesticides is examined as a function of scale across 14 orders of magnitude from the field to the ocean. Data on pesticide loads in streams from two US Geological Survey programs were combined with literature data from field and watershed studies. The annual load as percent of use (LAPU) was quantified for each of the fields and watersheds and was used as the normalization factor across watersheds and compounds. The in-stream losses of each pesticide were estimated for a model stream with a 15 day travel time (similar in characteristics to the upper Mississippi River). These estimated in-stream losses agreed well with the observed changes in apparent LAPU values as a function of watershed area. In general, herbicides applied to the soil surface had the greatest LAPU values and minimal in-stream losses. Soil-incorporated herbicides had smaller LAPU values and substantial in-stream losses. Insecticides generally had LAPU values similar to the incorporated herbicides, but had more variation in their in-stream losses. On the basis of the LAPU values of the 39 pesticides as a function of watershed area, a generalized conceptual model of the movement of pesticides from the field to the ocean is suggested. The importance of considering both field runoff and in-stream losses is discussed in relation to interpreting monitoring data and making regulatory decisions. Published in 2001 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.