Why we need to protect the bees

It’s not just about honey. Whether you see them as fuzzy, friendly wildlife or pesky picnic-wreckers, bees are vital to all our lives. They pollinate the cultivated plants in our gardens and parks along with more than 75% of the UK’s wildflowers. More crucially, more than 80% of human food is supplied by plants. 84% of Europe’s food crops need to be pollinated by insects to support both quality and yields. Pollinators include bumblebees, honeybees (both wild and domesticated) many other species of wild bee, and other wild insects like butterflies and midges. Yet while agriculture’s dependence on natural pollinators has increased since the 1960s, pollinators are declining. 13 UK species of bees have been lost since 1900, with many more endangered.

The UN has suggested these vital pollinators, including the 25,000 to 30,000 different species of bees, are potentially worth around $600bn a year to global food producers. Others have estimated it would cost the UK more than £1.8 bn annually to pollinate its crops by hand. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) warned in 2015 that  9.2% of all European wild bee species were known to be facing extinction, with more than half the species of unknown status. While diseases, climate change and intensive bee-farming methods are undoubtedly factors, the intensive use of pesticides and herbicides, and in particular neonicotinoids, is a direct threat to bees that could be easily addressed.

What are neonicotinoids?

Neonicotinoids such as acetamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam are broad-spectrum pesticides which have been widely used as to protect food and horticultural plants from aphids and similar pests for more than 20 years. Unlike most insecticides, which remain on the plant’s surface, neonics, as they are often called, are systemic. Applied as seed treatments, they’re taken up by a plant and transported to all its tissues, including the pollen, nectar and sap.

In 2013, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) analysed 600 research studies in consultation with experts before concluding that “most uses of neonicotinoid pesticides represent a risk to wild bees and honeybees”. Neurobiologist Professor Randolf Menzel of the University of Berlin has explained that neonics can impair bees’ learning and navigational abilities, preventing them from returning to their hives, and their immune response, making them more likely to die from common diseases.

A Global Taskforce on Systemic Pesticides made up of 29 independent scientists concluded that the widespread use of neonics is also polluting our environment. Residues persist in soil and groundwater and are taken up by subsequent crops and wildflowers, and more widely dispersed to other plants, leading insects to face chronic exposure. Earthworms, birds eating the seeds and small mammals eating seedlings are also affected. They can now be found anywhere in the environment. A 2017 Swiss study found neonic residues in 75% of honey samples. They’ve been described by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as “a worldwide threat to biodiversity, ecosystems and ecosystem services”.

But they’re banned now, right?

Neonics were forbidden by the EU for use on outdoor flowering crops in 2013, when a moratorium was imposed to allow decision-makers to consider the evidence. Unsurprisingly, the pesticide industry disputes the risk. German-based multinational Bayer (now owners of the notorious ‘Frankenseed’ producers formerly know as Monsanto) makes imidacloprid and clothianidin and Swiss-headquartered, Chinese multinational Syngenta, which has UK production facilities, makes thiamethoxam. Bayer has continually fought the EU, as well as campaigners, in court over the ban, teaming up with both Sygenta and the UK’s National Farmers Union.

However, the eventual EU ban didn’t extend equally across all five neonics. As of 2020, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam may still be used by professional growers in a fully enclosed greenhouse under stringent conditions. Treated plants must be kept indoors until they have finished flowering, and then can’t be planted in the soil within nine months. Acetamiprid and thiacloprid were judged to be less toxic to bees and also remained available to professional growers, although in 2019 the EU voted not to extend thiacloprid’s license when it expired in 2020, due to its potential to directly harm human health. British farmers were required to use up or destroy existing stocks by February 2021. Home gardeners can still buy acetamiprid products in UK DIY stores and garden centres. Products include EverGreen’s Bug Clear and Rose Clear.

In April 2018 the ban was both made permanent and extended to include plants not pollinated by bees, such as cereal crops, which are wind pollinated, or those harvested before they flower, like sugar beet. They’re now permanently ‘banned’ since September 2020, (except under ’emergency authorisations’). Bayer’s appeal against the 2018 ruling which led to the 2020 ban was overturned by the European Court of Justice in May 2021. UN experts have declared the continued insistence that we need to use their pesticides “to feed the world” a myth.  

Another lingering problem has been the presence of neonics in plants bought at garden centres. Plants may be sold as ‘Bee Friendly’ if they are likely to attract bees to your garden, but a 2017 University of Sussex study screened 29 of these and found pesticides in almost all of them, and neonics in nearly 70%. A  YouGov poll and a Friends of the Earth campaign later, all 10 of the top 10 large UK garden retailers had pledged to stop stocking flowering plants grown using neonics. But outside the big players, your garden centre may well still be stocking plants grown, perfectly legally, indoors using neonics. The only way you can really be sure is by actively looking for pesticide-free or organic garden plants. Look out for the plant’s traceability ‘passport’, often printed on the pot. If in doubt, talk to your plant supplier.

A tale of five toxins

NeonicotinoidStatus (EU & UK)Currently permitted in …
ClothianidinBanned for outdoor use Restricted indoor settings (e.g. with poultry). Also outdoors in an ’emergency’.
ImidaclopridBanned for outdoor useGreenhouses, including on flowering plants for sale in garden centres. Also outdoors in an ’emergency’.
ThiamethoxamBanned for outdoor useGreenhouses, including on flowering plants for sale in garden centres. Also outdoors in an ’emergency’.
ThiaclopridAuthorised for outdoor use. Later its licence was allowed to lapse.No circumstances. Farmers were given a ‘use-up date’ so there may be some still around.
Acetamiprid Authorised for outdoor useAny circumstances! Still available for retail purchase by private gardeners.
Last updated Feb 2022

When you look at it like that, it doesn’t look very much like a ban at all, does it?

What’s more, in November 2021, Unearthed reported that thousands of tonnes of neonics were still being exported from Europe. Working with Swiss NGO Public Eye, it published data showing that in the three months after the usage ban came into force, 3,900 tonnes were destined to leave the Europe, for low- and middle-income nations without the EU’s environmental regulations. Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, Greece, Austria, Denmark, Hungary and the UK were all judged likely culprits. Brazil, home of 20% of the world’s biodiversity, was due to receive almost half these exports, along with Russia, Ukraine, Argentina, Iran, South Africa, Indonesia, Ghana, Mali and Singapore. Claire Nasike, of Greenpeace Africa, told The Guardian: “This is the highest form of double standards, exhibited by these EU countries. They are prioritising profits at the expense of the people and the planet.”

While the European Commission had already committed to ending the manufacture for export of chemicals banned for use in the EU, it’s response was to indicated that no further legal changes would be likely before 2023. In the meantime, Belgium and France have already taken steps to ban this indefensible practice at national level.

Most of the exports were notified by subsidiaries of Syngenta and Bayer, both multinationals with European HQs. A Bayer spokesperson said: “The mere fact that a plant protection product is not authorised or banned in the EU says nothing about its safety.” Syngenta suggested: “The many emergency authorisations granted by various EU countries show that farmers need this technology to protect their crops.” Yet a French study found that on 59% of farms, measures such as crop rotation, mechanical weeding and managing sowing dates, could reduce pesticide use by 42% without any negative effects on either productivity or profitability. More long-term measures encouraging the predators of pests like aphids could render pesticides completely unnecessary.

What sort of ’emergency’ would be made better by using neonics?

European farmers continue to exploit the loopholes. A 2020 investigation by Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigative arm, found that since the ban was agreed in April 2018, EU countries had issued more than 60 different ’emergency’ authorisations, known as ‘derogations’, for the outdoor use of imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and even clothianidin. Apolline Roger, a chemicals lawyer for environmental charity ClientEarth, explains that countries are still legally allowed to grant short-term permission to use these pesticides where there’s an obvious danger to farming or ecosystems that cannot be contained by “any other reasonable means”, but that they are, in fact, common practice. “They are rarely justified and often repeated” she told Unearthed. “This means countries are repeatedly and habitually violating EU law, and endangering people, environment and pollinators in the process.”

The UK government’s position on all this has seldom been helpful. When the EU introduced the moratorium in 2013, the UK opposed the ban. In 2017 it then pledged to protect our pollinators. Its 25 year plan, published in 2018, committed to ‘Supporting further restrictions on neonicotinoid pesticides, in line with scientific evidence” adding that. “Any continuing use should be limited and permitted only where the environmental risks are shown to be very low.” It formally declared a climate and nature emergency in 2019. When we left the EU, the UK remained subject to the EU ban as it then stood. A new Office for Environmental Protection was set up by the Environment Act 2021, to replace EU environmental laws passed since Brexit, which will not apply in the UK. While setting up the ‘world-leading’ OEP, it stopped short of guaranteeing its independence and the strength to enforce its decisions.

It seems to us that the government doesn’t really need another consultative body which it can ignore at will. In 2021, DEFRA granted ’emergency authorisation’ for the use of thiamethoxam, in the form of Syngenta’s Cruiser SB, on sugar beet crops, despite its own Health and Safety Executive (HSE) having advised against this. DEFRA at the time said: “The plan anticipates that applications for emergency authorisations for neonicotinoid seed treatments may be needed for three years (2021 to 2023)”The 2021 derogation was, in the event, rendered unnecessary by weather conditions. Later in 2021, the government announced its flagship Environment Act, which included a commitment to reverse species decline by 2030. This included plans for Integrated Pest Management support to be available as part of a new Environmental Land Management Scheme for farmers from 2023.

Just months after that announcement, in January 2022 DEFRA announced that Cruiser SB would be permitted for the UK’s 2022 sugar beet season. In both ’21 and ’22 its assessment significantly ignored bumble bees, other wild species, and other pollinators, focusing only on impacts on honey bees. There are only seven recognised species of honey bee, and they only pollinate specific crops. Thousands of other species of bees pollinate a huge range of plants, and there are many other crucial pollinating insects.

The HSE again warned that the effects on pollinators of temporarily lifting of the ban would outweigh any potential benefits. The government’s Expert Committee on Pesticides (ECP) was “unable to support an emergency authorisation”. In both 2021 and 2022 the ECP and the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) pointed out the increasing evidence of harm from these chemicals.  Calling the decision on Cruiser SB “ill thought-out”, Pesticide Action Network UK, one of the first organisations to raise the alarm about neonics, immediately mobilised a wide range of organisations who wrote to call for this decision to be reversed. The reply from DEFRA politely explained that it would not be. A commons debate in February 2022 resolved that the matter had been dealt with!

The ECP, HSE and Natural England all raised concerns about the measures planned to mitigate the risks, which include requiring the use of herbicides to minimise the number of flowering weeds in treated sugar beet crops. There were no plans to similarly kill the wildflower margins deliberately planted around many crops to support bees. These will not therefore be ‘protected’ from contamination in this perverse way. DEFRA’s stricter mitigation measures for 2022 also include banning the planting of flowering crops in the contaminated soil for a longer period than stipulated for 2021 – an interval which, the HSE has pointed out, is by no means backed up by the science as safe. No specific mitigation measures were imposed to reduce the risk of water pollution.

The government is currently rewriting its National Action Plan for the sustainable use of pesticides. Setting aside the oxymoron, the draft commits to setting targets to reduce the harm caused by pesticides, but is weak on how it will support farmers to adopt non-chemical farming practices. To genuinely cut the use and impacts of pesticides, it will need to help all our farmers to get off the chemical treadmill.  

To the government’s credit, it did publish the HSE’s 2022 report as soon as it was available. In 2021, it had taken a Freedom of Information request and a lot of patience. Let’s hope this signals a commitment to more transparency in the interest of a genuine intention to protect our pollinators. You never know.

What you can do

Sign Friends of the Earth’s petition urging the government to make sure its new national plan for pesticide use includes realistic measures to put pesticide reduction at the heart of the the UK’s farming. https://act.friendsoftheearth.uk/petition/shape-future-our-countryside

Follow https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/ for updates.