There has been much debate on the contribution of neonicotinoid pesticides towards the decline of our bee population. Many MPs as well as the European Commission have advocated a ban on the widespread use of these pesticides. They point to a “growing body of peer-reviewed research” which has suggested neonicotinoids affect the abilities of hives to produce queen bees and damage their brains, leading to disorientation.
However, Defra have argued that these studies conducted in laboratories are not reflective of the situation in the field. Their own studies showed that the chemicals in neonicotinoids had no great effect on bee health, although they agree that more conclusive statistical evidence for this is needed. Chief scientist Dr Ian Boyd had the following to say on neonicotinoids and their effects on bees:
“Neonicotinoids will kill bees, let me be absolutely clear about that. It is what numbers do they kill and whether it affects populations – the question is whether banning them in any way would be proportional and at the moment the balance of evidence suggests it wouldn’t be,” he said.*
So what exactly are Neonicotinoids?
Here’s the BBC’s brief guide…*
- Nicotine is not just lethal to humans in the form of cigarettes, but the chemical is also extremely toxic to insects
- Neonicotinoid pesticides are new nicotine-like chemicals and act on the nervous systems of insects with a lower threat to mammals and the environment than many older sprays
- Pesticides made in this way are water soluble which means they can be applied to the soil and taken up by the whole plant – they are called “systemic”, meaning they turn the plant itself into a poison factory with toxins coming from roots, leaves, stems and pollen
- Neonicotinoids are often applied as seed treatments which means coating the seeds before planting.
Thoughts from Timber bee books…
Wild species such as honey bees are said by researchers to be responsible for pollinating around one-third of the world’s crop production.
All hymenoptera including bees are ‘particularly susceptible to chemicals because of their small size and high rates of metabolism’. (‘Bees, Ants and Wasps’, Eric Grissell)
The importance of producing queens within a hive cannot be understated: it is crucial for the survival of the colony. To produce the next generation of queens and drones each new queen needs leave the hive, mate sequentially with drones from other hives at a high, open place and then find her way back to the hive to lay all of her eggs, before leaving with a swarm of workers to start a new colony. This is a cycle which needs to continue indefinitely but with reduced bee numbers or disorientated queens and drones, the process could be severely disrupted. (‘Keeping Bees in Towns & Cities’, Luke Dixon)
In ‘Bees, Wasps and Ants’, Eric Grissell cites a precedent for the current decline in bee population back in 2004 in the USA, it was later termed ‘colony collapse disorder’. According to various sources, colony disappearances have occurred for at least a century and have been called by different names, including ‘spring dwindling’, ‘disappearing disease’ and appropriately enough, ‘Mary Celeste syndrome’.
Other reasons for the current bee decline?*
- Varroa mite - A parasitic mite that sucks the blood from bees. Unless beekeepers control Varroa, their colonies can collapse and die within two or three years
- Diseases - Other viruses are known to affect bees including deformed wing virus, acute paralysis virus, slow paralysis virus and cloudy wing virus. These weaken honeybee colonies by reducing the longevity of adult honeybees
- Neglect - Bee keepers need to work harder than ever to keep their colonies alive because of the dangers posed by infections and to ensure they have enough honey in their hives to keep them going until nectar becomes available again in the spring
As the EU vote on the 29th of April on the ban of neonicotinoids approaches, the debate over this thorny issue is showing no signs of dying down. Whichever decision emerges from the vote, the need to continue learning more about bees and to increase our understanding of the ways in which we can help secure their future is greater than ever.
In that spirit, we are offering £5.00 off ‘Keeping Bees in Towns and Cities’ and ‘Bees, Wasps and Ants: The Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in Gardens’ until the end of May 2013 if you enter the code BEES2013 at the checkout of our website. You can also click here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22021104 to learn more about both sides of the neonicotinoids debate.
*All asterisked points and paragraphs have been sourced or paraphrased from the BBC’s article on this subject: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22021104