Plight of the bumblebee

An unnerving majority of our kitchen staples rely on successful pollination from bees. Now, pesticides have been attributed to their demise. So what next?

Bees are getting lost, they’re failing to nurture their queens and they’re dying. And unless you’ve had your own nerve receptors depleted these past few years this won’t be news to you. However, there have been several breakthroughs in the complex and often controversial story in recent weeks, with the European Commission proposing a ban on the group of pesticides known as neonicotinoids off the back of the European Food Safety Authority‘s (EFSA) recommendation for their ban.

Bees are responsible for a third of the food we eat – cucumbers, coriander, vanilla, pears, aubergines, broad beans, avocado – the list goes on. The impact of further bee loss would be devastating to our landscapes and to our plates, reminding us of the bitter irony that the modern agricultural method that strives for high yield is destroying the natural method on which we largely depend.

The conclusion from EFSA labelled the world’s most widely used insecticide as “unacceptable” – a first in the long history of research into colony collapse. It also highlighted that current regulations are too “simplistic” and contained “major weaknesses”. Under the Commission’s recommendations, a ban on the three most common pesticides could be imposed as early as July, and would be forbidden from use on corn, oil seed rape, sunflowers and other crops for a minimum of two years, before further review. The European Commissioner for health and consumer policy Tonio Borg said it was time for “swift and decisive action.”

But it’s not all so straightforward, as MPs have been told this month that despite the EFSA’s comments, the Government can ignore its recommendations because it was merely a risk assessment. Individual EU Member States will still have the final say on whether to adopt the recommendation or not.

According to the Soil Association, the evidence for the harmful effect of neonicotinoids on bees can be narrowed down to its introduction in the 1990s, “exactly at the time when mass be disappearances started occurring. The evidence against these chemicals is strong enough that they have been banned or suspended in France, Germany and Italy – but not yet in the UK,” it says.

The evidence of a link has been growing, and rapidly so, since March 2012, with University of Stirling research finding bees were increasingly unable to navigate home after their forage (disappearances doubled), and an 85% loss in queen production. The EFSA says it strongly identifies links between the pesticide and the decline in honeybee numbers in both the UK and the US (50% in the last 25 years). The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) will be leading its own review and the EFSA research would be considered before an independent advisory committee. “Their evidence will be considered by ministers. If it is concluded that restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids are necessary, they will be brought in,” says Defra.

During a hearing of the Environmental Audit Committee on 6 February, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas asked Herman Fontier, Head of the Pesticides Division at EFSA if there was nothing more it could do. She said: “A lot of scientific rigour has gone into your conclusion that these chemicals should only be used on crops not attractive to bees, and that’s a fairly catergorical statement,” she said. “But if a member state decides to do something completely different, do you just have to say, ‘fine, there’s nothing we can do’?”

“There’s nothing, really nothing more we can do,” Mr Fontier said.

In recent weeks there has been step-change in several retailers, with B&Q, Wickes and Homebase withdrawing two popular bug killers containing the chemical. But as yet, the move was voluntary, and not all retailers have been instructed to do the same. Lord Peter Melchett, Policy Director at the Soil Association said the conclusion of “unacceptable” danger by the EFSA should instil a blanket ban across all retailers. Defra said that commercial decisions are a matter for individual businesses.

Andrew Pendleton, Head of Campaigns at Friends of the Earth agreed with the move but called on the Government to react: “We’re delighted stores are withdrawing these pesticides. Other retailers must follow suit… Ministers must help safeguard our bees by imminently suspending the three pesticides identified by European food safety scientists – and ensuring farmers have safe alternatives. Declining bee numbers are a real threat to food production.”

The European Commission will submit a paper on the proposed ban to all member states in the European Union on 25 February as part of the Pesticides Residues Vote.


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