Why we need a permanent ban on bee-harming pesticides

Sandra Bell

01 December 2015

In 2013 EU-wide restrictions of 3 neonicotinoid pesticides were introduced to protect bees. 

It's vital we keep the restrictions in place - permanently.

The 2013 restrictions followed a vote by European governments and a report by scientists which said they posed a "high acute risk" to  honeybees.  But this decision will be reviewed in 2017.

The widespread crop damage predicted by opponents of the move has failed to happen and there has been a regular release of new scientific evidence of neonicotinoid threat to bees and other wildlife

Bees are vital to farming, boosting the yield and quality of many of Britain’s crops.

Here are 4 reasons why the government must support a permanent ban on neonicotinoids, based on the science.

This means supporting a continued EU ban on bee harming pesticides (we will still be in the EU when the decision is made) and commit to a permenant ban in the UK - whatever our future relationship with Europe.

Reasons for a ban on neonicotinoids

1. There is compelling evidence - including from laboratory studies and field trials - that neonicotinoids do harm bees...and other wildlife

  • In June 2014 a global study involving 29 scientists and over 1,000 papers  by the Global Task Force on Systemic Pesticides concluded that neonicotinoids “are causing significant damage to a wide range of beneficial invertebrate species and are a key factor in the decline of bees”.
  • In    April    2015,    the    highly    respected    European    Academies    Science    Advisory Council said there is clear scientific evidence for sub-lethal effects on bees and other pollinators exposed to very low levels of neonicotinoids over extended periods.
  • A study by Newcastle University, published in April 2015, found that bees preferred to feed on solutions containing neonicotinoids, and concluded that treating flowering crops with commonly used neonicotinoids “presents a sizeable hazard to foraging bees”.
  • Field trials in Sweden found the use of neonicotinoid treated seeds  “has negative effects on wild bees, with potential negative effects on populations".
  • In 2016 the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology published an eighteen year study that showed a correlation between neonicotinoid use and the decline of wild bees.
  • Evidence is growing that neonicotinoids may also be affecting butterflies including a study by the University of Stirling which showed that the decline of 15 out of 17 butterfly species monitored correlated with neonicotinoid use.
White tailed bumble bee foraging
White-tailed bumblebee foraging, UK

2 New evidence shows bees are being exposed to more neonicotinoids than previously thought 

new study found that wild-flowers like poppies growing next to fields of crops treated with neonicotinoid, contain high levels of these pesticides. 

Poppies, and other wildflowers, are an important source of food for bees.  

Meanwhile research from Canada found that neonicotinoids remain much longer than expected in soil dust, and that the dust is dispersed widely, potentially increasing bees exposure to them.

Because research is showing neonics remain in the environment and are found a long way from where they were used there is now a strong case to extend existing restrictions - which only apply to some crops like oilseed rape - to all crops such as wheat.

honey bees returning to their hive, Kings Cross, London
Honey bees returning to the hive, Kings Cross, London

3. There is a lack of evidence that neonicotionids help farmers

The National Farmers Union (NFU) says there are crop losses due to damage from cabbage stem flea beetle (CSFB), resulting from the restrictions on neonicotinoids.

As a result, the NFU successfully persuaded the government to allow oilseed rape treated with 2 of the restricted pesticides to be planted in parts of the country in 2015.  But when it tried to do the same in 2016 the government rightly turned the application down keeping our oilseed rape fields free of the banned pesticides.

Actually yields for oilseed rape in 2015, when neonics could not be used, were higher than in 2014 and above the ten year average.  Although yields in 2016 are looking to be below the five year average this is due to a range of factors including weather, with loss to pests being only one. 

Some farmers will have suffered crop losses due to pests, but these could have happened even with neoincotinoid treated seeds.  In fact one study found no consistent benefit on crop yield from using treated seeds. 

What we do have evidence for is that insect pollination enhances oilseed rape yields - and has also been found to increase the value of 2 British apple varieties by £37m a year.

Now new research suggests that neonicotinoids could be damaging some food production. Apples pollinated by bumblebees exposed to neonics were lower quality than neonic-free bumblebees

We found that bees exposed to pesticides returned from apple flowers with less pollen than bees in the control group. This suggests that bumblebees exposed to pesticides must somehow behave differently on flowers.

Dr Mike Garratt, University of Reading

4. There are alternative ways of controlling pests

The NFU says that farmers will be forced to use more of other pesticide sprays such as pyrethroids if the neonicotinoid ban continues.  Some farmers have used more of these sprays but there is no need to.

Research for Friends of the Earth found that there are effective non-chemical means of control, such as encouraing natural predators that eat the pests.  Measures to help natural predators like planting wildflower margins and hedgerows can be good for pollinators too.

Pesticide use can also be reduced if crops are carefully monitored for pests before a decision is taken to use a chemical.

Friends of the Earth has also talked to farmers who grow oil seed rape without neonicotinoids.  Farmers need more support from the government and the farming industry to develop other promising methods of pest control such as companion cropping which may help to draw pests away from the crop.

Committed to helping pollinators?

The Conservative government says it is committed to pollinators thriving, as outlined in its National Pollinator Strategy (produced by the coalition government in 2014 as a result of a Friends of the Earth led campaign).

A recent survey found that 81% of the British public want the government to maintain the EU ban on bee-harming pesticides.   

It is time for the government to take a big step in its commitment to help pollinators - by supporting a permanent ban on neonicotinoids – and helping farmers find safe alternatives.

You can help save bees too 

This blog was updated on 5 October 2016.

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no to pesticides bees.jpg