The Scot­tish Govern­ment has the power to ban the harm­ful pes­ti­cides that are killing our bee pop­u­la­tion and threat­en­ing Scot­land’s agri­cul­tural vi­a­bil­ity – so why won’t they act?


Pes­ti­cides are killing bees and could prove lethal to man

They may be among the small­est of in­sects, but bees play a huge role in the pro­duc­tion of the food we eat and are vi­tal to the fu­ture of our planet. The No­bel prize-win­ning writer Mau­rice Maeter­linck, in his 1901 book The Life of the Bee, warned: ‘If the bee dis­ap­peared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.’

By pol­li­nat­ing toma­toes, peas, ap­ples and straw­ber­ries, bees con­trib­ute an es­ti­mated £691m a year to the UK econ­omy. How­ever, the buzz-filled sound of a lazy sum­mer is be­com­ing a thing of the past. Our govern­ment at Holy­rood needs to take ur­gent ac­tion to stem the rapid de­cline of Scot­land’s bee pop­u­la­tions.

Since the 1930s, the UK has lost an esti-

Above: Wild­flow­ers, the ba­sis of com­plex food chains, rely on bee pol­li­na­tion to pro­duce seeds for re­pro­duc­tion.

mated 97% of flower-rich grass­land, the main food source for bees. If bees dis­ap­pear, so do a lot of other in­sects, birds and mam­mals. It is no ac­ci­dent that bee pop­u­la­tions started to de­cline with the in­tro­duc­tion in the mid-1990s of neon­i­coti­noid pes­ti­cides, the most widely used class of in­sec­ti­cides in the world.

Neon­ics, as they are called, are used to coat seeds and are wa­ter sol­u­ble. But only around 5% of the ac­tive in­gre­di­ent is taken up sys­tem­i­cally by plants, the rest is dis­persed into the wider en­vi­ron­ment. This means that not only bees but other in­sects, wild flow­ers, streams and hedges – in fact the whole farmed en­vi­ron­ment – are con­tam­i­nated with neu­ro­tox­ins. While th­ese are thought to be less toxic to mam­mals

and ver­te­brates, no-one re­ally knows the pre­cise long-term ef­fects of ex­po­sure. How­ever, it’s thought that neu­ro­tox­ins could con­trib­ute to Alzheimer’s and Parkin­son’s dis­eases.

Since the mid-2000s nu­mer­ous rep­utable stud­ies have raised con­cerns about the mass poi­son­ing of hon­ey­bees and bum­ble­bees by neon­ics. The ef­fect of th­ese pes­ti­cides on bees is cat­a­strophic be­cause of what it does to the in­sect’s brain. Bees have to be clever to sur­vive, they nav­i­gate long dis­tances and can’t af­ford to get lost or dis­ori­en­tated – with­out mem­ory, the bees are lost and the colony dies. To put things in per­spec­tive, one tea­spoon of cloth­i­an­i­din is enough to kill one and a quar­ter bil­lion honey bees.

An as­sess­ment con­ducted by the Euro­pean Food Safety Author­ity (EFSA) con­cluded that the pes­ti­cides cloth­i­an­i­din, im­i­da­clo­prid and thi­amethoxam, when used on cer­tain flower crops, pose a ‘high risk’ to honey bees. At the time the EFSA was un­able to draw any con­clu­sions about the risk to wild bees due to the lack of avail­able ev­i­dence. This in it­self raises ques­tions as to how thor­oughly pes­ti­cides are tested be­fore they are li­censed for use.

De­spite protests from the UK, in 2013 the Euro­pean Union is­sued a ban on us­ing Syn­genta’s t hi­amethoxam and Bayer’s cloth­i­an­i­din and im­i­da­clo­prid on flow­er­ing plants such as oilseed rape. To its dis­grace, the UK govern­ment suc­cess­fully lob­bied the EU to tem­po­rar­ily lift the ban for 120 days in July 2015 in re­sponse to pres­sure from the farm­ing lobby. Farm­ers were wor­ried about the cab­bage flea bee­tle af­fect­ing their crop yields.

How­ever, dur­ing this pe­riod there was no dif­fer­ence in the number of pests or the crop yields be­tween treated and un­treated fields of oilseed rape. Since the EU ban, yields have been up. So why keep us­ing ex­pen­sive, harm­ful pes­ti­cides? De­spite the EU mora­to­rium, the an­nual use of th­ese pes­ti­cides in the UK con­tin­ues to rise, mainly be­cause they are still ap­plied to win­ter wheat ce­re­als, the coun­try’s largest crop. Un­der pres­sure from farm­ers and the agro­chem­i­cal in­dus­try, the EFSA de­cided to re-as­sess the risk level of the banned chem­i­cals.

This re­view, due to be pub­lished in Jan­uary, has been post­poned un­til Septem­ber. In the mean­time, be­cause of con­cerns that the EFSA could be com­pro­mised, Green­peace com­mis- sioned and funded an in­de­pen­dent study from Sus­sex univer­sity, The En­vi­ron­men­tal Risks of Neon­i­coti­noid Pes­ti­cides: a Re­view of the Ev­i­dence Post-2013. Re­searchers re­ported that all pre­vi­ous risk ar­eas iden­ti­fied re­mained un­changed, apart from two which were found to face in­creased risk: the risk of ex­po­sure from, and up­take of, neon­i­coti­noids in non-crop plants, and the sub-lethal ef­fects of neon­i­coti­noids on wild bees.

On the back of their own report, Friends of the Earth has called on the De­part­ment for the En­vi­ron­ment, Food & Ru­ral Af­fairs (De­fra) to ex­tend the EU ban to wheat crops as well as flow­er­ing crops. They found that the use of cloth­i­an­i­din on wheat also threat­ened bees, birds, but­ter­flies and other wildlife, in­clud­ing aquatic in­ver­te­brates.

We live in a time where peo­ple are be­com­ing more con­scious about what they eat; buy­ing or­ganic and lo­cally-pro­duced food, some of it from the grow­ing number of farm­ers’ mar­kets. This move­ment is seen as a largely mid­dle-class pre­serve but ev­ery­one should have ac­cess to eth­i­cally-pro­duced food. It will mean hav­ing to pay more, but the 10% of in­come we spend on food as a pro­por­tion of in­come is a frac­tion of the 50% it was 100 years ago. The ques­tion is, can we af­ford not to when it comes to our health and that of the planet?

The Scot­tish Govern­ment needs to take steps to re­move all harm­ful pes­ti­cides from the food chain. It al­ready has author­ity over pes­ti­cides but hasn’t a statu­tory body to use it. Leav­ing the EU and los­ing the EFSA means Scot­land would need to set up an EFSA equiv­a­lent. How­ever, the EU could con­tinue to in­di­rectly dic­tate how our farm­ers pro­duce food by in­sist­ing it meets cer­tain reg­u­la­tions if it is ex­ported to Europe.

All gov­ern­ments need to get rid of pes­ti­cides, es­pe­cially as they don’t seem to be do­ing their job. A study across the US found that the mil­lions of tonnes of neon­ics ap­plied to the soya crop each year had no ben­e­fit what­so­ever. Get­ting rid of pes­ti­cides goes beyond pro­tect­ing wildlife and pro­duc­ing healthy food. As agri­cul­ture is re­spon­si­ble for a third of all green­house gas emis­sions, greater than power gen­er­a­tion, do­ing things dif­fer­ently would be good for the planet.

We are run­ning out of time and if Maeter­linck is right, the clock is al­ready tick­ing.

‘The ef­fect of th­ese pes­ti­cides on bees is cat­a­strophic be­cause of what it does to the in­sect’s brain’

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