A big day for bees? But new EU insecticide ban could impact us all

  1. EU's latest review found 'neonics' pesticides pose risk to bees
  2. Agrichemical industry 'probably got replacement pesticides in the pipeline ready to wheel out'

Update: European Union (EU) members voted on April 27 for a near complete ban on the use of neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” the world’s most widely used class of insecticides, which they deemed damaging to bees. The ban will extend the EU’s existing 2013 moratorium on imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam to outdoor uses, and they will only be free to use in greenhouses. It is expected to be come into force by the end of 2018 (The Guardian).

It’s not just honey they serve up – bees play a vital role in the food chain. They pollinate roughly 70 of the 100 crops feeding 90 percent of the globe (UNEP) and provide a service worth at least €22 billion a year to European agriculture (European Commission). But bees have problems: industrial pesticides could be killing them. And a threat to bees is a threat to us all. 

Scientist Reese Halter told WikiTribune that “85 percent of all plant life requires insect pollination, and bees do the lion’s share of it. If the bees go, we go, and all life follows thereafter.”

But a major threat to bees are pesticides, mostly used by farmers. Many scientists argue that bans on pesticides are good for bees, but they are unpopular with some agriculturists.

Urban beekeeping is highly fashionable; New Zealand’s manuka honey has been sold as a “superfood” that fights infections (The Telegraph), despite largely unproven scientific health benefits (The Conversation).

Yet millions of domesticated western honey bee hives were lost in the mid-noughties in a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder, with high winter mortality rates caused by a mixture of flower meadow decline, pests, global warming, and pesticide use. And one group of pesticides, called neonicotinoids or “neonics,” is potentially affecting bees much more than others.

Neonics may impact bees’ ability to forage, learn, and find their way, as well as reduce the survival and reproductive rates of queen bees. Halter is more certain, telling WikiTribune: “We know what these poisons do, and the bees lose their minds and they shake to death.”

While bee scientist and author Dave Goulson said that honey bees have actually experienced a global net increase in the last few decades, to the “surprise of many people who’ve heard about the bee apocalypse,” their numbers have only increased due to being largely domesticated, with farmers relying on them to pollinate their crops. “It’s a bit like using the number of chickens in the world as an indicator of how well wild birds are doing,” he told WikiTribune.

“The 19,999 species of wild bee so far as we know – the very large majority of those – are declining,” Goulson added. And the only species of bees which pollinate potatoes or eggplants are wild.

‘I hope we don’t end up in a world where the only bees we have left are little robots’ – Bee scientist

The EU already controversially (Science) and narrowly (The Conversation) passed a partial ban on three neonics – clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam – for use on plants attractive to bees in 2013. Despite this, a recent study found that neonics were still present in 79 percent of European honey samples, and 75 percent of samples globally. The effects of neonics on human health are also unknown (academic study).

Blanket Ban

Now the EU could be voting on a complete neonics ban as soon as Thursday March 22 (Nature) when a European Commission committee meets to discuss its latest report (Nature). The Commission’s February 2018 review on the three banned substances reaffirmed its 2013 conclusions, finding that while each neonic posed a varying level of risk to bees in different situations, “for all the outdoor uses, there was at least one aspect of the assessment indicating a high risk.”

Western honey bee on flower (CC BY SA 3.0; Author: Ricks at German Wikipedia)
The western honey bee – the most common species of honey bee worldwide. (CC BY SA 3.0; Author: Ricks at German Wikipedia)

This could further upset some farmers, particularly those growing oilseed rape, as some UK agriculturists said they experienced problems with pests resulting from the 2013 EU ban (The Guardian). Two of the world’s largest agrichemical businesses, Bayer and Syngenta, heavily lobbied against the initial ban (The Guardian) and even sued the European Commission for its decision.

The UK was one of the EU countries which voted against the 2013 ban, arguing the science was inconclusive at the time, but it has since changed its position, with Environment Secretary Michael Gove saying the evidence against neonics has risen (The Guardian). And even one of the largest studies on neonics, partially funded by Germany’s Bayer and Switzerland’s Syngenta, concluded that they harm both honeybees and wild bees.

The effects the partial ban has had on European bees is not known, according to Goulson, who said there isn’t a Europe-wide bee monitoring scheme in place, and there are year-to-year fluctuations, so “it’s too early to say.”

However, he said: “I think most scientists that say the effects [of neonics] are unclear are scientists who have a vested interest … Those are the scientists you tend to hear saying, ‘Oh, well. It’s very complicated. The evidence isn’t clear.’ … The very large majority of independent scientists think the evidence is overwhelmingly pointing in one direction.”

Scientist Linda Field, from Rothamsted Research, told WikiTribune that a total neonics ban would be likely to cause farmers to move to using pyrethroid insecticides instead, which are ineffective against aphid pests.

For Goulson, reverting to using other pesticides like this misses the point entirely. “History tells us that we keep introducing new pesticides and then a decade or two later, realizing that they’re doing terrible harm to the environment and banning them,” he said.

Goulson said that while he’s optimistic a full neonics ban will soon pass, the agrichemical industry has most likely anticipated this eventuality and “probably got replacement pesticides in the pipeline ready to wheel out” when this happens. And he says that even “if we stopped using them [neonics] tomorrow, they’ll be detectable for probably at least five years, maybe longer.”

No US neonics ban

In the United States there is no restriction on neonics, with the exception of the state of Maryland where neonic use by citizens was banned on January 1, 2018 (Bloomberg). Halter told WikiTribune “with this present administration it’s not even on the list.”

Reese Walter pictured with honeybees working to produce leatherwood honey in west coast Tasmania (CC BY SA 4.0; Author: Reese Halter)
Reese Halter pictured with honeybees working to produce leatherwood honey in west coast Tasmania (CC BY SA 4.0; Author: Reese Halter)

Despite the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluding that neonics posed serious risks to birds and aquatic life in December 2017, it is now considering Sygenta’s proposal to allow the neonic thiamethoxam to be directly sprayed on the most widely grown crops in the U.S., greatly increasing the amount used, compared to current practice of coating it on the seeds (EcoWatch). Halter said this would be “a disaster.”

EPA assessments have found that spraying thiamethoxam or applying it on the seeds posed chronic risk to adult bees, as well as neonics being able to kill birds and posing a significant threat to aquatic invertebrates (EcoWatch).

Without bees what would we do?

In 2013 Harvard University started developing autonomous robot bees to be used in crop pollination, known as RoboBees. Despite being able to swim underwater and perch on surfaces (Harvard University), Goulson told WikiTribune that “at the moment, they don’t look terribly effective.” He said if you wanted to replace only honeybees, you’d have to build roughly three trillion robots, which would require resources, energy, and they’d have to be recycled.

“We have real bees that are self-replicating and free and biodegradable, and give us honey as well and are really good at pollinating flowers. They’ve been doing it for 120 million years.

“The idea that we can do better than that by replacing them with something we can build seems kind of nuts to me … I hope we don’t end up in a world where the only bees we have left are little robots,” Goulson added.

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