Bees and Neonicotinoid Pesticides

A number of constituents have contacted me in advance of a debate which is being held in Parliament on the impact on bees from the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. I very much hope to participate in this debate albeit the Transport Select Committee, of which I am a member, sits at the same time.

I am a beekeeper so have an interest in this matter and, as an MP, I am keen to promote the cause of pollinators. To this end, on 2 December 2015, I chaired the Parliament Office of Science and Technology’s ‘National Pollinators’ update in Parliament, where four leading academics in this field discussed the current issues facing bees and other pollinators. On Wednesday 9 December, I am organising the inaugral meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Bees. Via this group, I hope to be able to work with politicians, and other groups who are interested, to promote issues which impact bee colonies and our other pollinators.

My response to the debate on the impact of neonicotinoids on bees and other pollinators

Historically, there have been substantial losses of honey bee colonies through the use of older pesticides employed in intensive agriculture.

Those speaking on behalf of beekeepers, through discussions with regulators and the agrichem industry in the 1990s, were able to initiate some best practice elements, dos and don’ts which appear in the Pesticides Handbook. Via successful lobbying of manufacturers to improve promotion of good stewardship, there was a substantial drop in poisoning incidents.

Resistance began to emerge to these pesticides amongst target pests, requiring more frequent spraying with higher application strengths.

Varroa mite arrived from Europe in the early nineties, with devastating effects on bee colonies. The agrichem industry, having an interest in protecting bees and other pollinators, attempted to find a solution and developed a low dose pesticide anti-varroa agents marketed as Bayvarol and Apistan. This is a good example of the agrichem industry working to protect bees and other pollinators. However by the turn of the century the varrora mite was already developing resistance to these agents, reducing efficacy from around 95% to less than 40%. 

This resistance issue meant that various new bio-mechanical approaches were developed. However, the decline in efficacy of the pesticides exposed the major lacuna in the range of pharmaceutical agents available to combat varroa (and other honey bee pests), which continues.

The development of neonicotinoids appeared, on its face, to offer a clear benefit over existing chemistries in that they were effective and developed under more stringent regulatory requirements in terms of collateral damage potential to wildlife and beneficials. The fact that neonicotinoids were designed to be used principally as seed treatments was seen as an advantage in that the pesticide action was exerted on the young plant rather than requiring spraying of adult plants in flower.  This partitioning of pesticide by applying it to the seed rather than to the flower was seen to be very positive and poisoning incidents remained very rare notwithstanding the widespread adoption of neonicotinoids on bee attractive crops such as oil seed rape.

The emergence of substantial bee colony losses in the USA (CCD) caused researchers to look for a culprit. For those looking for a simple answer to a complex question, pesticides were the obvious choice although considered opinion amongst scientists points to a range of factors including Varroa, lack of forage, Nosema, climate change, bad weather. It should be noted that this research does not exclude a wide cocktail of pesticide residues that can be found in hives, as opposed to field. Some of these residues are applied by beekeepers themselves.

The loss of colonies was suggested by some researchers to have a possible link to the neurotoxic effects of neonicotinoids, interfering with bee navigation and the ability to return to the hive. Ever more sensitive analytical techniques have been able to detect infinitessimally small levels of neonicotinoid components in pollen and nectar.  It is supposed that these minute levels of pesticide exert a sub-lethal effect on foraging bees. The anti-pesticide lobby has furthered the case based on the conclusions from a limited range of studies.  These studies have almost all been in laboratory settings rather than field based work.  The defenders of neonicotinoids (the agrichem industry and farmers) have criticised these studies in that they poison bees in lab conditions and do not reflect the situation in the field.

I beleive that more research is needed on whether neonicotinoids harm bees and other pollinators or whether the reasons behind pollinator reduction is caused by other factors. This will require the global academic community to come to a consensus view on the issue, using all of the research which is being undertaken. At the National Pollinators summit, it was estimated that there are 20 differing research papers published per day on the subject.

In a world where we need science to alleviate hunger and starvation via increased food production and security, pesticides such as neonicotinoids may be a necessary requirement and may give benefits which outweigh any proven negatives. However, I believe that we need to see the safest possible agents used with proper stewardship with the absolute minimum of damage to bees. It is imperative that government, the regulators, agrichem companies and the research community ramp up the amount of research in this area to reach an evidence based understanding and a way forward.

Intensive lobbying across Europe by wildlife groups, anti-pesticide organisations and NGOs resulted in the European Commission instituting a moratorium on three neonicotinoids used on bee attractive plants for two years from Dec 2013.  The Commission acted to determine this matter because the votes among the member states did not achieve the qualified majority required. The moratorium expires this month but, as of the time of writing, no direction has come from the EU as to whether it will be extended. 

The introduction of the moratorium was not preceded by a proper risk or impact assessment of its effect on farming. It is arguable that the mortatorium could have caused the re-adoption of old less effective and damaging compounds. 

The neonicotinoid issue has been divisive and dogged by the lack of well-designed scientific studies, which are urgently needed to resolve it. Rational debate has often been drowned out by pre-determined positions. I believe that more research, and less emotion, will lead to a clear determination on this issue. The farming industry is one of the greatest drivers for finding a solution on this matter and it is important that there is not a divide between all of those who love, manage and farm, our countryside.