If you have the time, I highly recommend the episode of BBC Radio 4 show The Life Scientific with Dave Goulson, academic and founder of The Bumblebee Conservation Trust. He articulates very clearly the threats facing bumblebees (which he was instrumental in researching), and provides the best response I’ve heard to farmers complaining about the impact of the temporary EU moratorium on neonicotinide pesticides.
Here’s a summary of the key points he makes.
On the threats currently facing bees in the UK (but also applies elsewhere):
They’re facing a three pronged threat from habitat loss, as hay meadows and chalk down habitats are lost, the introduction of bee diseases and parasites from other parts of the world, and the increasing use of pesticides. In his words “essentially they’re hungry, infected with bee diseases, and being gently poisoned all at the same time”.
Most of the studies that claimed to show neonicotides were harmless just checked whether the bees were still alive after exposure. He was sceptical about whether they were harming bees, but after requests from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust members, decided to carry out a study. Bees were exposed to the same levels of neonicotides they’d be exposed to if they were gathering food in a field treated with these pesticides for two weeks. A control group of bees were not exposed to neonicotinides. Hives from both groups were the put outside near each other. The success of each hive was measured by the number of new queens produced by each hive. There was a shocking 85% reduction in the number of new queens produced by the hives exposed to neonicotides.
The explanation for this is the effect of neonicotindes on bees’ ability to gather pollen. The pesticide is a neurotoxin which doesn’t kill individual bees outright, but affects their memory.
Dave explains that following on from his and other groups studies, the EU completed a 6 month study that lead to the moratorium, which only applies to the use of neonics on flowering crops. (The British Government voted against this moratorium).
Later in the interview, they played a clip from a farming show, where a farmer was complaining about the failure of his rapeseed oil crop (think fields of bright yellow flowers) due to a pest, laying the blame on the neonicotinide ban.
Dave’s response is to point out that tales of a devastated rapeseed oil crop are somewhat exaggerated – according to the Home Grown Cereals Authority, 2.6% of the crop was lost, half of which was successfully re-sown. Bad weather conditions contributed to the prevalence of the pest.
(In fact a report I found on the Scottish Government site suggests that overall rapeseed oil production rose in 2014 http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0046/00466564.pdf, in Scotland at least!)
He then goes on to counter the farmer’s point that he is carrying out an essential task (the implication is that it should not be hindered in any way), growing food for the nation: we are in no danger of running out of food, instead there are high levels of food waste. (I’d add to this that rapeseed is primarily grown as cattle feed). Finally, he makes the point that if some crop loss is the cost of a living environment, it is more than worth it. Modern agricultural practices are having a devastating effect on the environment, and mean that farmers no longer use traditional methods of reducing pests such as rotating crops, and using resistant crop species. Intensive pesticide (“a blizzard of pesticides… every field is treated with at least 20 different pesticides in a single season”) use has unbalanced the natural environment, removing natural predators of the species that damage crops.
We need to rethink our farming practices and move away from the current short term, quick fix approach of chemical sprays as a solution to everything.
This blog is my paraphrasing of the interview with my own views interjected – to hear it from the horse’s mouth, here’s that link to the podcast again – it’s very interesting, entertaining and well worth a listen.