After the Buzz

The recent ban on certain bee killing pesticides was
praised as a major win for the environment.
But the celebrations might be premature.

by ELIN ESPMARK WIBE

After the Buzz

The recent ban on certain bee killing pesticides was
praised as a major win for the environment.
But the celebrations might be premature.

by ELIN ESPMARK WIBE

Some stories end where others begin. This one started long before ours did. Some 129,8 million years before in fact, according to biologist and bee enthusiast Professor Dave Goulson. We are dependent on their story to tell ours, but with our current efforts whether they can survive ours has become less of a given.

The human race is utterly dependent on bees. From fruits and nuts to cotton and wine, bees pollinate 70 percent of the roughly 100 crop species that feed a whopping 90 percent of the world. In the UK alone, it is estimated bees contribute £651 million a year to the economy.

When it comes to species to safeguard, bees are high up on the list. But the past decades the use of pesticides, industrial monocultures, loss of habitat and climate change have been reducing bees and pollinator populations drastically. And worst off are the wild bees.

So it was understandable when environmentalists across Europe took to the streets in celebration when the EU very recently announced they would ban almost all use of the bee killing pesticides known as neonicotinoids.

But they joy may be amplified by a false consciousness.

"There is a danger in thinking job well done”, Goulson says, “which is definitely not true”.

Neonicotinoids - or neonics for short - are a group of widely used insecticides used on crops made to attack the central nervous system of insects. And bees are particularly vulnerable. Their effect on humans is still not thoroughly researched, but with found in honey from every continent we might still be due a thorough answer. They are the most used group of insecticides in the UK - and the most controversial ones.

Activists celebrating the EU wide ban on neonicotinoids in April 2018. (Photo by Christopher Glanzi, CC BY-ND 2.0)

A brief history of Neonicotinoids

Chapter 1:

What goes around comes around

If the history of insecticides has taught us one thing - it is that as one becomes the enemy, the big business sees the future as an opportunity. And they have not missed their chance this time around either.

“They have enormous influence” Goulson says. “Their sale of neonics runs up to billions of pounds every year. Serious money. They have done a lot to confuse the issue, to plant seeds of doubts in the minds of decision makers”.

“It’s all about money”.

Albeit unsurprising, it should be worrying. Goulson notes “We’ve allowed big business to decide for us. Few things are as important as growing food, we’d all die without it, and the way we grow it has massive impact.“

The current agricultural system in the UK has seen pollinator's food sources decrease rapidly - with an estimated 97% of wildflower meadows having disappeared due to industrial farming the past century, with bees following shortly after .

Goulson thinks one of the main issues is that we have become up with a way of food production that is hostile to wildlife and completely dependent on pesticides.

"We keep allowing things onto the market and it takes decades to realise they’re harmful" he says, 'it's likely that neonics will just be replaced by something else. And in a few years we’ll just argue whether that should be banned."

They have done a lot to confuse the issue, to plant seeds of doubts in the minds of decision makers.

- Prof Dave Goulson

Prof Dave Goulson (Pic: Dave Goulson)

Chapter 1:

What goes around comes around

If the history of insecticides has taught us one thing - it is that as one becomes the enemy, the big business sees the future as an opportunity. And they have not missed their chance this time around either.

“They have enormous influence” Goulson says. “Their sale of neonics runs up to billions of pounds every year. Serious money. They have done a lot to confuse the issue, to plant seeds of doubts in the minds of decision makers”.

“It’s all about money”.

Albeit unsurprising, it should be worrying. Goulson notes “We’ve allowed big business to decide for us. Few things are as important as growing food, we’d all die without it, and the way we grow it has massive impact.“

The current agricultural system in the UK has seen pollinator's food sources decrease rapidly - with an estimated 97% of wildflower meadows having disappeared due to industrial farming the past century, with bees following shortly after .

Goulson thinks one of the main issues is that we have become up with a way of food production that is hostile to wildlife and completely dependent on pesticides.

"We keep allowing things onto the market and it takes decades to realise they’re harmful" he says, 'it's likely that neonics will just be replaced by something else. And in a few years we’ll just argue whether that should be banned."

Neonicotinoids used in the UK (by Kg)

Data: Fera Science Ltd

His argument is not ill-advised. As Imidacloprid grew increasingly popular, Colony Collapse Disorder rampaged bee colonies. And as people were beginning to put two and two together and the sales declined, clothianidin expanded across UK fields - a chemical now part of the EU wide ban on bee harming pesticides.

"All of the big companies are constantly developing new chemicals, and they're already developing new ones" Goulson says. The chemicals he is referring to are called cyantraniliprole, sulfoxaflor and flupyradifurone, the latter being produced by pesticide giant Bayer. Their similarities to previous insecticides suggest they are very close to merely being a new generation of neonicotinoids.

Goulson adds “a vast majority of agronomic advisors in the UK work either for a pesticide company or on commission. You don’t want your doctor to be hired by a drug company”.

It’s a matter of priorities. The question is whether outlawing one problem will solve the wider issue. Leaving faith to company research publications and policy lobbyists sounds pernicious to Goulson, and he adds: “If we continue as we are, we will loose a very large proportion of species in the UK and globally. Surely that’s worth a bit of taxpayer money to do it the best way, but sadly the government has decided not to.”

Chapter 2:

The Keepers

The honey bee has on several levels become a prominent icon of the Great British summer. But the picture of a buzzing meadow is one that lives in our past and not our present. Bees are dying. Some researches has gone as far as predict that there is no single wild honey bee left in England or Wales. Kept honey bees were also facing decline, with bee population having fallen from 182,000 colonies in 1965 to 83,000 in 2010. Europe is facing a major pollination deficit, and the UK is one of the most desperate countries.

Perhaps contradictory to the images of dead bees, in the UK and across the world the pollination deficit and prospect of a reduced biodiversity has proven an inspiration to individuals and organisations to muck in - leading to a revival beehives.

Number of beehives (by millions)

Data: FAO

Individuals are increasingly taking up beekeeping as a hobby. To the extent that according to Dr Jonas Geldmann, researcher in Conservation Biology at University of Cambridge, the word amongst enthusiasts is that there is only about 11 beekeepers in the UK having bees as their full time job - the rest being amateurs and volunteers. Since 2008 the number of members of the British Beekeepers Association rose from 8500 people to over 24,000 in 2017.

But behind the ‘Save the Bees’ banner the story is somewhat more complicated.

Tristram Sutton is a trustee and member of the London Beekeepers Association (LBKA). He has been beekeeping for about 6 years, and spends several days a week during summer looking after his Apis mellifera - his western honey bees at Walworth Garden. The small patch of land is booming with flowers and birds rarely seen on the other side of the fence in its urban South London location - a rather dreamy attempt to be a solution to a dystopian problem.

Passersby are peeking through the fence from the busy road as he is inspecting his bees for disease. They’re healthier now than what they used to be.

There are over 5,000 beehives in London, with up to 60,000 bees in each. “It’s issue that is a lot of people think a keeping a lot of bees in towns is environmental friendly” he says.

"The population of bees is london is in fact quite high, and the issue is the availability of food. There are areas in London where the population is in fact too high."

Being part of the LBKA he has seen an increase in companies wanting to keep bees. "But increasing the honey bee population is not be answer" he adds. "We should focus on increasing pollen production - support council activity leaving the meadows wild."

Despite the density of bees in cities like London, honey bees don’t fly far from home - usually about 3km. Meaning having a great honey bee population in urban environment isn’t necessarily helping to reduce the rural pollination deficit.

About the same distance to the north of Walworth Garden Micheli Ross Page, head of SOAS Beekeeper Society, keeps his bees on the rooftop of the School of Oriental and African Studies. He thinks we need to recognise urban ecosystems and the role of bees to cities. “Neonics are without doubt a big problem, but we need bigger initiatives to sustain and grow bee populations. Current environmental policies after Brexit are not looking great.”.

He has had two colonies die. And like Goulson he is keeping honey bees, but he is worried about species diversity and the impact Brexit will have on the environment. “The longhorn bee is the most endangered bee species in the UK at the moment. The biggest hub of them is near Heathrow, and now they’re building another runway” he says. “it call into question how they will be protected and how serious the government actually takes the issue”.

His fascination with the insects is warranted. “It all centers around the queen, but so much is going on. No other species has that level of organisation.”. If you haven’t looked up the bee waggle dance yet, it should probably be on your to-do list. He adds “ if the drones, the few male bees, haven’t succeeded with their primary task by winter, they effectively just kill them off. Stick it to them.”

He thinks we need to rethink the way we preserve pollinators. “A problem is industrial beekeeping. With giant trucks carrying hives to pollinate orchards. The impact it has on bees is really negative”. For him, considering bees a hobby is restricting the species. “We need to see them as wild animals - sort considering it national beekeeping.” he says.

  • It’s issue that is a lot of people think a keeping a lot of bees in towns is environmental friendly



    - Tristram Sutton

    Tristram Sutton, LBKA Trustee and beekeeper in Walworth Garden

By Zeynel Cebeci [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Chapter 3:

The Plight of the Bumblebee

Jonas Geldmann started a small wildfire when he published his article ‘Conserving honey bees does not help wildlife’.

The past decades three bumblebee species in the UK have gone extinct over half of solitary bees have declined. Geldmann is not alone in rising a red flag on the conservation focus on the honey bee.

“The focus on the honey bee can lead to conservation strategies for pollinators that are optimised for honey bees and therefore not for other pollinators” he says. Honey bees are again on the increase, but with their publicity there is a risk of endangering wild pollinators.

He is afraid it leads to people taking up beekeeping thinking they are doing a service for nature, when in fact they are not, risking conservation resources getting into the wrong hands, adding “We are starting to see some evidence that under certain conditions honey bees might actually harm wild pollinators - through transmitting diseases that are common in honey bees as they are managed as kept animals”.

With the intensification of farming an intensification of competition for resources follows - “It’s simplificing the landscape and introducing pesticides that is effectively eliminating our threatened pollinators.” Geldmann says.

The blame can be laid onto the lack of understanding of the relationship between nature and farming. When policies are not distinguishing between the real need agriculture has for pollination and the conservation issue of declining pollinators, we end up with strategies that try to combine them. “We end up with solutions that don’t benefit wild pollinators, and it’s being masked as if they are” Geldmann says.

“The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in the EU is the most detrimental instruments for nature in Europe” he says, but is sceptic of whether British farming will survive if the CAP is not matched after Brexit.

Data: YouGov/Friends of the Earth

But there is hope. “Some progressive talks on how to use agricultural subsidies both to support a green and an agricultural agenda have come out of the UK and Michael Gove lately”.

So hold on before making the ‘Never mind the honey bees’-banner. Neonicotinoids have been negatively impacting honey bees, but they have also been damaging to wild pollinators. Honey bees are arguably one of the most iconic insect we have. In Geldmann’s words they can be used in wild pollinator’s favour by being a “canary in a coalmine”. Albeit they are a means, not an end, to ensure pollination and conservation policy.