Government must do more to protect our bees

Sandra Bell

05 November 2015

It's a whole year since the Government introduced a National Pollinator Strategy. But its efforts to protect our bees are still lacking.

Together with the Bee Coalition we've evaluated the Government's commitment to bees. It definitely needs to up its game.

Ministers finally agreed in 2013 to do something about the threats faced by bees and other pollinators. It followed a vociferous campaign by Friends of the Earth and other organisations – as well as mounting scientific evidence. The result was the National Pollinator strategy in November 2014. Now it’s a year old.

There is much to celebrate including an impressive list of bee-friendly projects from companies, councils and communities. But a new report published by the Bee Coalition, warns that our bees and pollinators are still in jeopardy, and that the Government is still doing too little to help them.

Help our bees

Pesticides

The threat from pesticides is still a major concern. A plethora of new and worrying scientific evidence links neonicotinoid pesticides with harm to bees. The past year has seen a long list of new evidence.

Bees prefer to feed on sucrose solutions laced with neonicotinoids rather than sucrose alone – reported a study by Newcastle University. It concluded that treating flowering crops with commonly used neonicotinoids “presents a sizeable hazard to foraging bees”.

Neonicotinoid treated seeds have "negative effects on wild bees, with potential negative effects on populations" according to Field trials in Sweden.

Furthermore, high levels of neonicotinoids have been found in wild-flowers, including poppies and hogweed that grow next to treated fields, showing the persistence of these chemicals and a greater threat of exposure to bees.

These latest findings follow restrictions that were placed on 3 neonicotinoid pesticides in 2013 after European scientists found a high risk to honeybees.

As the Bee Coalition report states “The evidence on neonicotinoids has now piled up to the point that the risk to bees is essentially confirmed”.

Green light for banned pesticides

Yet the growing mountain of evidence did not stop the Government from allowing seeds treated with 2 neonicotinoid pesticides – currently banned by the EU – to be planted in parts of England this autumn. Friends of the Earth is challenging this decision.

The National Farmers' Union has made it clear that we can expect to see further applications for neonicotinoid use next year. The NFU says crops are being devastated without neonics.

Good yields without neonics

Since restrictions on these chemicals were introduced, yields on oilseed rape crops not treated with neonicotinoids have remained above average. The current UK harvest data for oil seed rape shows that it’s been a good crop, above the 10-year average. One Lincolnshire farmer even set a new world record for oilseed rape yield

Neonicotinoids are not a silver bullet for protecting crops – a recent study found no overall effect on yield from using treated seeds.

Better alternatives

There are many agricultural techniques which reduce the need for pesticides, such as:

  • crop rotation
  • the use of resistant varieties of plants
  • and the careful monitoring of pest populations to determine if threshold levels have been exceeded.

Better deployment of these techniques known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) – could yield excellent results – possibly reducing pesticide use by 50%. But the Government does not do enough to promote non-chemical solutions.

This continues to be a key threat to the success of the NPS.

Habitat loss

Pesticides are not the only problem. Too often, important habitats for pollinators and other wildlife continue to be lost or damaged.

98% of wildflower meadows have already been lost in the UK since the 1950's. The loss of key habitats from our wider countryside makes wildlife more dependent on protected wildlife sites. The sea-aster mining bee, for example, is now dependent on protected salt marsh on the east coast of England.

Yet the Government revealed that just 3% of the most precious protected wildlife sites in England were in good condition in 2013 – down from 6% in 2007. That's not good enough.

Our remaining meadows need stronger safeguarding from badly located development and the impacts of intensive farming. The Bee Coalition wants more meadows to be listed as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) to strengthen their protection.

New bee habitat needed

The creation of new bee habitats by volunteers, councils, and businesses – from schools to pub gardens to extensive urban meadows – is extremely welcome. But we need Government leadership on this issue too, along with funding to ensure that extensive new and connected habitat is created.

One of the NPS commitments – the new Countryside Stewardship Scheme – offers payments to farmers for taking actions for pollinators.

But at the same time the UK Government has missed an opportunity to ensure that taxpayers' money is used to help farmers help pollinators.

A new Greening scheme links one third of the subsidies received by farmers to new environmental requirements, such as obligations to create Ecological Focus Areas.

In England, the Government has chosen to offer farmers the maximum amount of flexibility in how they implement Greening, meaning that there’s no guarantee it will deliver improvements for pollinators and other wildlife in the farmed landscape. This needs to be changed.

A stronger National Pollniator Strategy

The National Pollinator Strategy is a welcome and much needed initiative. But if it is to be effective it must be strengthened, including:

  • a permanent ban on neonicotinoid insecticides;
  • an action plan aimed at reducing overall use of all pesticides;
  • stronger incentives for farmers to use bee-friendly farming techniques;
  • tougher protection for remaining bee habitats, such as wildflower meadows, to ensure they are not lost to development;
  • the creation of extensive and connected flower-rich bee-friendly habitat across our countryside, farmland and urban landscapes.

Bees are crucial for our food, farming and countryside – we can’t afford to gamble with their future.

The Bee Coalition includes Buglife, ClientEarth, Environmental Justice Foundation, Friends of the Earth, Natural Beekeeping Trust, Pesticide Action Network, Soil Association and The Wildlife Trusts.

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