As Europe calls for more information, are pesticides harming our bees?

As Europe calls for more information, are pesticides harming our bees?

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Two years ago, a group of insecticides known as neonicotinoids hit the headlines after the European Union approved restrictions on them due to fears about their impact on bees.

The timeframe for these restrictions is almost up and the EU is now reviewing the bans and whether or not to keep them in place, calling for research from around the globe to help it make its decision.

Background to the ban

Beekeepers had been seeing large and unexplained declines in bee populations and environmentalists began to blame neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide introduced in the 1990s and widely adopted because they were less toxic to mammals than other chemicals.

However, they spread throughout the leaves, petals and even nectar of a plant rather than simply being sprayed on the leaves, meaning they were more likely to be ingested by pollinating insects like bees.

Research has shown that bees can carry neonicotinoids back to the hive where they are fed to larvae, resulting in them being affected too - and just three parts per billion was enough to affect their health, navigation skills and immune systems.

What's more, studies have also shown that bees are attracted to neonicotinoids because they get a 'high' from them in the same way a human might from nicotine - so they will actively seek them out and therefore unwittingly create a cumulative effect.

In 2013, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) examined 150 studies and concluded that three specific neonicotinoids - clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam - posed a "high acute risk" to honey bees.

It therefore restricted their use on "bee attractive plants" including flowering crops for two years from December 2013.

Are neonicotinoids to blame?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this did not go down well with their manufacturers, who argued that factors such as habitat loss, the weather and parasites are to blame for declines in bee populations and have funded their own research, which concluded there is no harm done to bees from neonicotinoids.

European farmers have also argued that they are losing valuable crops to pests without them, harming their ability to compete with their counterparts in locations without the ban.

There is perhaps a nugget of truth in this, as there are almost certainly other factors involved in bee decline, some of which are natural and some of which come about as a result of the human impact on the environment.

Earlier this year, a study at the universities of Keele and Sussex suggested bees could be suffering dementia because they are consuming high amounts of aluminium - so high that it would cause brain damage in humans. It was not confirmed where the metal was coming from.

It has also been recently suggested that a tiny parasite called Nosema ceranae might be affecting honey bees and reducing their lifespans.

Meanwhile, we have been experiencing more extreme weather of late, so some say this is leading to population declines.

However, a Swedish study discovered that clothianidin in particular could be having a big impact on bumblebees and other wild bees, with those in fields treated by it failing to gain weight and demonstrating less reproductive activity than their counterparts in untreated fields. 

Fighting to keep the ban in place

As a result, environmental groups are fighting to ensure the restrictions stay in place, particularly since bans are coming into effect elsewhere.

In Canada, a report listed neonicotinoids as one of the 'stressors' on bee populations and Ontario has already acted to reduce the number of acres treated with the chemicals. By 2017, it is hoped that the number of acres planted with neonicotinoid-treated seeds should be lowered by 80 per cent.

The EFSA is requesting that national authorities, research institutions, industry and other stakeholders submit new information relevant to the evaluation of neonicotinoids and their risk to bees by the closing date of September 30th 2015.

It will then review the material and make recommendations as to whether the ban should continue after December this year.

It's hugely sad for wildlife lovers to see a decline in bees, as well as potentially dangerous for our future pollination needs, no matter if it's neonicotinoids, the weather or parasites causing the phenomenon.

You can do your bit to help them by putting a Bee Nesting Cylinder in your garden to provide shelter and somewhere to breed, planting things like wildflower seeds to appeal to them, and reducing pesticide use to a bare minimum.

It will be interesting to see what the outcome of the EFSA review is come the end of the year.