Protecting our bees

Last week EU states voted on a proposal to restrict the use of neonicotinoides, pesticides that threaten the survival of bee colonies. The proposal had considerable support but, sadly, not from the UK government.

This is not the first time the European Commission has sought to ban the chemicals. After studying all available evidence, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that neonicotinoids present an unacceptable danger to bees. In January, in response to the EFSA’s report, the European Commission proposed a two-year suspension of these pesticides, and the proposals would have entered EU law in February if a majority of member states had voted in favour. However, the proposal failed after several countries opposed the suspension while Britain and Germany abstained.

The failure pleased chemical companies Bayer and Syngenta who claimed that the EC “relied too heavily on the precautionary principle”. Defra, similarly, suggested that the EU was rushing the proposal through. The UK environment secretary, Owen Paterson, supported by the government’s chief scientific advisor and by the NFU, asked the EC to postpone the decision and wait for further research.

But, John Gummer (now Lord Deben), former environment minister, criticised Paterson’s stance, saying that bees are too important to take such risks. Almost three-quarters of the UK public support the ban, and last week a petition with 300,000 signatures was delivered to Downing Street, while 2½ million people signed a petition online. Even retailers supported the ban by voluntarily ceasing to stock the chemicals.

More than 30 scientific studies carried out in the last three years have shown that neonicotinoids have a harmful effect on bees. These insect neurotoxins attack bees’ nervous systems and affect memory, learning and navigation. The pesticides have been linked to a 50% fall in both UK and US honey bee numbers over the last 25 years, a doubling of the number of bees that fail to find their way home after foraging for food, and increased sensitivity of hives to parasites and lack of food. Researchers also found an 85% drop in the production of queen bees. Queens are the only members of the colony that survive the winter and are therefore essential for establishing new colonies the following year.

Last week the EC took the proposal to an appeals committee and gained the right to enforce a ban despite members’ failure to agree. It will impose a two-year restriction on the chemicals, beginning no later than 1 December.

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