In a shock to the scientific community, neonicotinoids, - or neurotoxic agricultural insecticides - have been shown in laboratory tests to cause brain damage in bees.
Actually, it wasn’t that much of a shock. There’s never been any doubt over the potential of these chemicals to harm bees - the recent controversy has been over dosage.
The manufacturers of these chemicals freely admit that at high doses neonicotinoids, along with other pesticides, can harm or kill bees, but they maintain that the doses used in the field, or at least the doses they recommend to be used in the field, will be safe for bees.
However, numerous recent studies indicate that neurological damage from these chemicals can impact on the ability of bees to find food and then to find their way home again. A lost bee is a dead bee, so this is a very serious issue for bee welfare.
And the welfare of bees is not an insignificant consideration. Honey isn’t their most important gift to humans – the European honeybee is a major pollinator of agricultural crops around the world, three quarters of which are dependent on insect pollination. If we kill off their pollinators, either those crops fail, or we’ll need to create some sort of mechanical replacement to do their’ job.
This is not abstract theorising. Bees are dying out. Now.
In the US, bee numbers have halved in the last few decades, with a 30% decline in the last five years. Several countries in Europe have suffered similar declines, with nearly 80% of Spanish hives lost.
This is, at least in part, due to a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD), where the worker bees from a hive mysteriously disappear. There’s general agreement that CCD is caused by combination of factors including the varroa mite (a bee parasite), disease, monocultural farming and weather impacts exacerbated by climate change. The disagreement comes over whether pesticides, and particularly neonicotinoids, are a contributing factor.
On one side you have the environmental organisations such as ourselves and Friends of the Earth, the European Food Safety Authority, parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, and the governments of most EU nations. We’re relying on a large number of peer-reviewed scientific studies showing that neonicatinoids harm bees.
On the other (not altogether surprisingly), you have the pesticide manufacturers Syngenta and Bayer. They’re relying on their own studies which allegedly show neonicotinoids to be safe. Although they can’t show us these studies as they are, of course, commercially confidential. Defra commissioned a field trial which seems to have been intended to support neonicotinoid safety, but unfortunately their trial site was so contaminated by neonicotinoids that there was no effective control group, undermining the trial.
But the biotech companies are not entirely alone. They have support from Germany (where, perhaps coincidentally, Bayer is based) and from Owen Paterson, our own environment minister. Syngenta has been lobbying hard in the UK as, while it's a Swiss-registered company, it has a big presence here. Martin Taylor, chairman of the board of directors, even went to the same school as life patron of the Oxfordshire Beekeepers’ Association, David Cameron.
And, perhaps coincidentally, last month Germany and the UK abstained from voting on a two-year suspension of neonicotinoids.
The (possibly apocryphal) Einstein quote that "if the bee disappeared from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live" isn’t exactly rigorous science. But it does point to the fact that bees are somewhat more valuable to farmers, and human well-being, than neonicotinoid insecticides.
There’s another vote on Monday, this time for European environment ministers, including Owen Paterson.
He’s there representing you. Make sure he doesn’t confuse your interests with those of Syngenta. You can email him here, or if you prefer a more personal touch, join the March of the Beekeepers on Friday. Bees have given us honey, fruit and a hundred other foods, not to mention a million beautiful flowers. Poisoning them to extinction with neurotoxins seems a poor way to show our gratitude.
See read the report on CCD and its causes.