Abstract A growing body of evidence suggests that aquatic plants can mitigate the toxicity of insecticides to sensitive aquatic animals. The current paradigm is that this ability is driven primarily by insecticide sorption to plant tissues, especially for hydrophobic compounds. However, recent work shows that submerged plants can strongly mitigate the toxicity of the relatively hydrophilic insecticide malathion, despite the fact that this compound exhibits a slow sorption rate to plants. To examine this disparity, we tested the hypothesis that the mitigating effect of submerged plants on malathion’s toxicity is driven primarily by the increased water pH from plant photosynthesis causing the hydrolysis of malathion, rather than by sorption. To do this, we compared zooplankton (Daphnia magna) survival across five environmentally relevant malathion concentrations (0, 1, 4, 6, or 36μgL−1) in test containers where we chemically manipulated water pH in the absence of plants or added the submerged plant (Elodea canadensis) but manipulated plant photosynthetic activity via shading or no shading. We discovered that malathion was equally lethal to Daphnia at all concentrations tested when photosynthetically inactive (i.e. shaded) plants were present (pH at time of dosing=7.8) or when pH was chemically decreased (pH=7.7). In contrast, when photosynthetically active (i.e. unshaded) plants were present (pH=9.8) or when pH was chemically increased (pH=9.5), the effects of 4 and 6μgL−1 of malathion on Daphnia were mitigated strongly and to an equal degree. These results demonstrate that the mitigating effect of submerged plants on malathion’s toxicity can be explained entirely by a mechanism of photosynthesizing plants causing an increase in water pH, resulting in rapid malathion hydrolysis. Our findings suggest that current ecotoxicological models and phytoremediation strategies may be overlooking a critical mechanism for mitigating pesticides.