Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Rethinking bees and pesticides

Late last month, the EU voted to ban neonicotinoids on all plants except those unattractive to bees and other insect pollinators, for two years, as part of the precautionary principle regarding environmental issues. It is expected that in this time, further research into the field effects of neonicotinoids on insect pollinators will be performed.

While I believe this is precisely the right thing to do, there are two issues with the current framing of the debate that I'd like to illuminate:

The first is the need for further, rigorous research, as suggested above, into the effects of neonicotinoids (and other pesticides) on bees and other pollinators. While I am confident that this research will confirm what is already suspected, there is no room for speculation within science. And, perhaps more importantly, the ban will not hold up against future scrutiny without it. This is especially true in the face of an opponent like the agribusiness lobby; even if the streets fill with millions in protest, the agribusiness industry will win without hard evidence when this policy is reviewed in two years time. It's also worth noting that in other parts of the world, such as the USA, government bodies like the EPA are resisting the call to ban neonicotinoids, citing a lack of evidence. Here in the EU where we are taking a lead on banning these pesticides, we should be setting an example to the rest of the world, not only in making a precautionary ban on neonicotinoids, but by carrying out research to convince other countries to follow our lead.

The second problem is that pesticides are coming to dominate the debate about bee health. It is all very well to campaign to ban pesticides that harm pollinators, but these pesticides are not the only major problem facing bees today. In the case of the honeybee, they are not even the biggest problem facing honeybees. If you were to ask any member of my local beekeeping association, or the one across the river on the Wirral which I visited last month, pesticides were not even mentioned once, despite the debate being at its climax in Europe at the time. What I did hear was talk of varroa, of colonies dying out because of out-of-control mite infestations, despite control in the previous autumn, of the notifiable diseases, European and American Foulbrood, and of colonies struggling to build up in the Spring, with newly-born bees being evicted from the colony because of their stumpy, useless wings, courtesy of the Deformed Wing Virus, to prevent the infection from spreading further within the colony.

Of course, there are other bees than just honeybees; bumblebees and solitary bees are also in decline. So what's causing those to die out, if not pesticides? In the UK, we can list loss of forage, large monocultured fields, loss of habitats and suitable nest sites, and climate change causing changes in seasonal climate patterns which these animals have simply not adapted to.

Of course, the body of evidence is building to suggest that neonicotinoids can become concentrated in stored food (honey), and then bioaccumulate in the workers bodies, resulting in maladaptive behavioural changes, like forgetting the hive location. This is a further stress on our bees which needs to be removed, and you won't see a tear of pity for the companies that lose out from this ban from me.

However, people need to be aware that this is one stress among many for our bees, and we need to ask our politicians for funding into research into the other problems driving bee decline. This means not only acting against the use of harmful pesticides, but also for research into the many other causes of bee decline, such as Varroa mites and diseases.

Act against the use of harmful pesticides.

Ask for research into the causes of bee decline, including Varroa mites and diseases.