Neonicotinoid insecticides and the impact on bees.

There as been much coverage of late about the harmful effects of neonicotinoid insecticide on bees. As with all these controversial topics, I’m always a little bit skeptical of the medias’ sensationalist approach to reporting the issue, the government’s honesty, the bias of the industry-sponsored impact reports and the environmental groups ‘no compromise’ approach.

However, it is a fact that the European Commission did restrict the use of 3 neonicotinoids (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam) for seed treatment, soil application (granules) and foliar treatment on bee attractive plants and cereals. These restrictions came into force on 1 December 2013 for a period of 2 years.

15 Member States supported the restriction, 8 Member States voted against (of which the UK was one) and 4 Member States abstained.

The background to this restriction is that in 2012, the European Commission asked the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to study the safety of three neonicotinoids, in response to growing concerns about the impact of neonicotinoids on honey bees. The study was published in January 2013, stating that neonicotinoids pose an unacceptably high risk to bees, and that the industry-sponsored science upon which regulatory agencies’ claims of safety have relied may be flawed. The review concluded, “A high acute risk to honey bees was identified from exposure via dust drift for the seed treatment uses in maize, oilseed rape and cereals. A high acute risk was also identified from exposure via residues in nectar and/or pollen.”

When first introduced, neonicotinoids were thought to have low toxicity to many insects but, as the research from EFSA and others suggests, there is a potential toxicity to honey bees and other beneficial insects even with low levels of contact.

Neonicotinoids may impact bees’ ability to forage and learn and remember navigation routes to and from food sources. Bees can fail to return to the hive without immediately dying from toxicity.

Bumble bee colony growth and queen production may be affected. Exposure to Neonicotinoids may significantly reduce the ability to produce bumble bee queens. As they are the only bumble bee to survive the winter, no queens means no new colonies the following year.

A 2012 study by Purdue University scientists showed the presence of thiamethoxam and clothianidin in bees found dead in and around hives situated near agricultural fields. Other bees at the hives exhibited tremors, uncoordinated movement and convulsions, all signs of insecticide poisoning. The insecticides were also consistently found at low levels in soil up to two years after treated seed were planted, on nearby dandelion flowers and in corn pollen gathered by the bees.

Two studies published in 2015 in Nature provided further evidence of the harmful effect of neonicotinoids on bees, although further research is needed to corroborate the findings: Oilseed rape seed coated with a combination of clothianidin and a pyrethroid “reduced wild bee density, solitary bee nesting, and bumblebee colony growth and reproduction under field conditions”.

Interestingly in January 2013, (just before the Member States voting) the Humboldt Forum for Food and Agriculture (HFFA), concluded that the restrictions would cost billions of Euros to the agricultural industry and significant job losses. The greatest losses would be in wheat, maize and rapeseed in the UK, Germany, Romania and France. The lowered production would induce more imports of agricultural commodities into the EU.

There is a wealth of independent scientific research suggesting neonicotinoids are dangerous. There is government and industry-sponsored research suggesting neonicotinoids are safe. The government has a report suggesting a restriction on neonicotinoids would be economically damaging.

My personal opinion is that neonicotinoids are dangerous to bees! It was with great disappointment that in July I learned of the UK Government’s decision to lift the restriction on two neonicotinoid pesticides for 120 days on about 5% of England’s oil seed rape crop. These products will be supplied by Bayer and Syngenta and will be deployed to ward off the cabbage stem flea beetle.

According to a report in The Guardian in July, Barry Gardiner, Labour’s shadow Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) minister, said the Europe-wide ban on neonicotinoids was an essential element of the protection of pollinating insects. “By lifting the ban government is giving in to short term commercial pressures at the expense of the future of British of farming.”

A Defra spokeswoman said: “We make decisions on pesticides based on the science only once the regulators are satisfied they are safe to people and the environment. Based on the evidence, we have followed the advice of the ECP and our chief scientist that a limited emergency authorisation of two pesticides should be granted in areas where oil rape crops are at greatest risk of pest damage.”

David Cameron, said: “The EU put in place the ban on neonics, but if scientists start telling us that these things are safer than they thought then perhaps we can licence them.”  Fair enough, but where is this scientific evidence?  Defra apparently told its expert committee on pesticides (ECP) to halt its normal practice of publishing the minutes of meetings at which the neonicotinoid applications were discussed, in order to avoid “provoking representations from different interest groups”.

Disappointing as it was, the lifting of the restriction in the UK was an emergency authorisation, for limited products, over a limited time period, with limited application. However, is this a sign of things come? The European Commission is set to review the restriction at the end of 2015. That’s imminent! Let’s hope they make the right decision. Lets hope the UK Government respects it!  If you’re asked to sign a petition banning neonicotinoids – have a think about it! Let’s hope we can keep the honey bee, bumble bee, solitary bee and all other pollinators safe for their and our own sake.

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