Bees and neonicotinoids: rapid action on the environment

Andy Brown

You have to hand it to this government. It is capable of acting with real speed and determination. Not, of course, on every little detail. So, we are still waiting for an effective test, trace and isolate system. And people are still flying into the UK without any method of enforcing quarantine arrangements. And schools are still waiting for the delivery of laptops that will help children to learn from home.

But, on the things that really matter to it, this government can be trusted to act quickly. Like the environment. When it comes to trashing the environment, it hasn’t hesitated to break its word.

It has only been a few short days since the UK has left the EU and already the government has started to lower standards. Now, it has legalised the use of neonicotinoids for farmers of sugar beet.

These chemicals are often described as bee-killing insecticides. Which isn’t quite fair. They kill a lot of other things as well.

The idea behind them sounds fantastic. As so often when we are being sold the advantages of a new poison, it is hard to fault the logic. Instead of spraying crops with insecticides, the aim is to put the insecticide onto the actual seed that you plant. When the plant grows, the active substance penetrates every part of the crop you have planted, without the problem of having a fine mist of chemicals sprayed over an entire field.

Unfortunately, that very clever piece of design comes with a serious side effect. A substance that is virulent enough to spread throughout the plant as it grows and still be powerful enough to kill insects that try and eat the plant, is pretty powerful.

It was obvious to everyone from the start that a high enough concentration of an insecticide would kill an insect and that bees were insects, so were at risk. Since many plants need bees for pollination, that is a serious problem.

The manufacturers of neonicotinoids therefore went to a lot of trouble to check that the doses that are present in the pollen that a plant provides to pollinating insects are not high enough to kill bees. Careful tests were conducted to ensure that in laboratory conditions honeybees would never be killed by the kinds of doses they were likely to be subjected to in field conditions. Those tests were rigorously conducted and properly supervised and they worked. No honeybees have been directly killed by the doses encountered in British fields.

What killed them was something more unexpected. Neonicotinoids act on the nervous system. The doses that bees encounter in the fields interfere with that system. In particular, the poison had an unexpected impact on the way bees navigate: it reduced their ability to fly home.

Bees were thought by the designers of the chemicals to visit a variety of flowers and to get relatively low doses in the fields. In reality, individual honeybees often specialise on a particular flower. Once they have located a source of either nectar or pollen that the hive needs, they tend to work it again and again. The result was that many individual bees got higher doses than expected and those doses turned out to be enough to confuse their navigation systems.

Honeybees started leaving hives and never coming back. This is a fairly common experience in a hive of bees that in mid-summer might contain 50,000 individuals, and the hive can survive the loss of a small number of its foragers. What it can’t survive is the loss of large numbers of those foragers. Once large numbers of bees fail to return, the hive starts to run out of the nectar that makes honey, or the pollen that is a vital food for young bees. The colony starves.

Colonies started to collapse, and this was noticed with particular clarity in the south of France where large fields of sunflower crops attracted bees in their thousands, only for the beekeepers to discover that their hives were dying out under the pressure of lost foragers.

Researchers then started to find other unexpected problems. As plants got older, they started to shed cells or to die and those cells got into the soil. Concentrations of neonicotinoids started to build up in the earth, particularly in locations like field margins. Which just happens to be where you are most likely to find bumblebee nests and where solitary bees overwinter. It is also an important environment for pollinating insects and other important creatures.

No one knows for sure the impact of all this on the health of the billions of creatures that live in the soil in even the smallest field. The tests have never been done on the vast majority of those creatures. Tests did, however, start to show a damaging impact on bumblebees.

Eventually, despite heavy lobbying from the chemical manufacturers who had invested so much in inventing these persistent insecticides, the European Union introduced a ban on them. The UK government being strongly committed to maintaining the highest environmental standards voted against that ban. Within days of leaving the EU they have now weakened it.

The justification is that this is a limited and controlled removal of the ban that is absolutely necessary, because sugar beet farmers cannot produce a crop without neonicotinoids. Apparently, if you grow the same crop in the same field for season after season, pests and diseases build up and it becomes really difficult to carry on industrially producing one monoculture crop in giant fields, without access to very powerful poisons and constant additions of fertilisers to the soil.

Who could possibly have suspected that? Apart from anyone who has ever tried to grow anything? The importance of regularly rotating the crop and not growing too much of the same thing in the same place has been known since well before medieval times.

Instead of encouraging and properly subsidising farmers to move away from industrial production techniques that are ceasing to work, the government has chosen to stick with a failed strategy. It is now encouraging farmers to use the next generation of powerful insecticides and to keep on overdosing fields with chemicals fertilisers that wash off into streams and rivers.

Once one set of farmers is allowed to use neonicotinoid seeds because of exceptionally difficult build-ups of insects that have become resistant to powerful chemicals, it is a matter of time before the government comes under pressure to extend the same approach to other crops.

So don’t expect this determination to dump high EU standards to be small scale, limited and temporary. Expect this to be the start of a sustained move to lower standards that is sold as necessary flexibility.

In other news, the government has assured us that once it signs a new trade deal with the United States of America it will ensure that any food imported from there will be produced to the highest possible environmental standards. We are entitled to have our doubts. The new Biden administration is most unlikely to want to lose a lot of votes by telling its famers that they cannot be included in a trade deal with the UK because their mass produced industrialised farming methods aren’t popular in the UK.

Any British farmers who are tempted to celebrate the gradual lifting of the restrictions on using neonicotinoids might therefore be wise to start worrying about the impact on their livelihoods of being exposed to the full force of competition from US farmers. And to start contemplating whether they really want to face the choice of either going out of business, or being forced further down the route of chemical-soaked farm production than the vast majority of them would like.

If only we had a government that could be relied upon to enter those trade talks with the US with a determination to maintain the highest possible environmental standards. Instead of a determination to make headline-grabbing promises about valuing the environment – before dumping them at the first opportunity.

Andy Brown is a beekeeper who has written regularly on beekeeping for the Yorkshire Post country section.

Pictures with thanks to Andy Brown.

This article first appeared in Yorkshire Bylines at:

Stop Press 27 January 2021:  The Wildlife Trusts’ lawyers have contacted the Environment Secretary, George Eustice to question his decision to allow the emergency use of the banned neonicotinoid Thiamethoxam for sugar beet. The Wildlife Trusts believe the action may have been unlawful and The Wildlife Trusts are planning a legal challenge to the decision unless Government can prove otherwise.

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