The National Farmer’s Union are lobbying to lift the ban on a pesticide that may threaten bee populations.
Illustration: Laurence Ware
The last few years have seen a surge in public support for the protection of bees and other pollinators. Two big wins for environmental groups have been the European Commission’s decision on banning neonicotinoids in 2013 to protect pollinators, and the National Pollinator strategy (led by Friends of the Earth) in the UK. Community groups and charities have helped with habitat creation. In Bristol this includes Avon Wildlife Trust, the Urban Pollinators Project, BugLife and new projects like BeeBristol. Even royalty got involved when Prince Charles launched the “Coronation Meadows” project to help conserve flower-rich grasslands across the UK.
Concern about pollinator decline here and across the Atlantic was boosted by the outbreak of ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ in US beehives. However bees aren’t the only pollinators. Others include butterflies, beetles, hoverflies, flies and even spiders. Together they are responsible for pollinating one third of the crops we eat, with a retail value of close to £1bn in 2007.
Everyone agrees that pollinators are in trouble, probably from a combination of factors, including disease, parasites, habitat loss and human mismanagement. Yet controversy reigns with regard to the use of pesticides, specifically neonicotinoids.
Neonicotinoids have been used in the last 20 years to control a variety of pests, especially sap-feeding insects, including aphids on cereals and root-feeding grubs. They are systemic, meaning they are transported throughout the plant – to leaves, flowers, roots, stems, pollen and nectar. The insecticide remains active in the plant for a season and has proven to be a very effective crop protector.
However, the UK government banned the use of neonicotinoids two years ago due to worries that these chemicals have been harming pollinators. Campaign and environmental groups have praised the ban but farmers have seen a loss of crop yields and income.
The National Farmers Union (NFU) has recently asked for the ban to be lifted for rapeseed, whose yellow flowers cover many English fields. According to NFU Vice President Guy Smith, the application was triggered by “hundreds of our members who are rapidly losing the ability to grow oilseed rape”. The NFU declares that since the restrictions began in 2013 there’s been no “game-changing new evidence to back them up.”
A study published this year came to a different conclusion. Researchers monitored colonies of honeybees and wild bees, including bumblebees, in 16 fields in southern Sweden. Half the fields contained an oilseed rape crop grown from seeds coated with the insecticide clothianidin and a fungicide. The other half were planted with seeds coated only with fungicide. The researchers found that seeds coated with clothianidin “reduced wild bee density, solitary bee nesting and bumblebee colony growth and reproduction under field conditions”
However, the NFU’s agricultural adviser points out that while the study did find harm to wild bees, although not honeybees, this does not mean neonicotinoids are causing widespread declines in bee populations. It could just mean that insecticide-treated fields are inhospitable places for insects. This study shows only that bees entering the field are in danger.
Another recent study by neuroscientist Geraldine Wright, of Newcastle University, raises further concern. She found that the bees actually preferred pesticide-laced solutions of sugar; “Our data indicates that bees cannot taste neonicotinoids and are not repelled by them. Instead, bees preferred solutions containing [neonicotinoids] IMD or TMX, even though the consumption of these pesticides caused them to eat less food overall. This work shows that bees cannot control their exposure to neonicotinoids in food and implies that treating flowering crops with IMD and TMX presents a sizable hazard to foraging bees”
In the South West we have roughly 135,000 acres of rapeseed crops. If we lift this ban there will be 135,000 acres of flowering crops treated with neonicotinoids that bees actually ‘prefer’, often surrounded by grassland that provides few flowers for them to feed on.
The main parties calling for the ban to be lifted are the NFU and a consortium of chemical companies, who say that there is no conclusive evidence to suggest a link between neonicotinoids and pollinator decline.
Should we lift the ban to help farmers struggling to sustain their crops?
Is there enough evidence that neonicotinoids cause or do not cause real harm to pollinators?
If pollinators are choosing treated crops over non-treated crops, does exposure to this cocktail of pesticides pose a threat?
We should be considering immediate impacts to the health of pollinators and the concurrent side effects that could have an adverse effect on their immune system and development as well as the habits of insects, which could ultimately lead to the pollinators decline.
A precautionary principle should be adopted here as ultimately the question is, is it really worth the risk?
Tim Barsby is Director of BeeBristol (beebristol.org)
With thanks to Jon Turney for editorial assistance.
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