Objectively, bees are great. Their gentle murmur as they clumsily sway through floral blooms is an inherent ingredient to the British summer. Acting as key pollinators in ecosystems across the globe, it was Einstein who stated, “if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, man would have only four years to live”.

Decline in bee population has been widely reported in Europe since the middle the 20th century. Loss of habitats and a decline in floral diversity are seen by many to be a necessary compromise, allowing for agricultural intensification. The situation however, is noticeably compounded by the effects of specific bee’s social patterns and their monogamous nature.

A newly published peer reviewed paper in Science provides a new level of certainty on the role that specific pesticides play in the decline of wild bee survival. Neonicotinoids are a group of insecticides that are similar in chemical structure to nicotine. Accounting for a quarter of the pesticide market, evidence on the effects of these pesticides has been varied, with large amounts of funding in the field provided by companies who manufacture the product. In the past, neonicotinoids have been shown to cause infertility in honeybees and disrupt the spatial memory of foraging bees causing them to revisit flowers with less nectar.

Most previous studies however, looked at evidence based on individual colonies. Bayer and Syngenta, two companies that dominate UK pesticide markets, criticised this previous research and funded a new European study. Led by the Centre of Hydrology and Ecology, this study looked at 3 countries with 33 large farmland sites being analysed. Sites across the UK, Hungary and Germany that farm rapeseed were observed when treated with neonicotinoids. Dependent on the feeding patterns of the bees observed, the effects of the pesticide vary. Those bees feeding mainly on the neonicotinoid treated crop struggled to produce new colonies the following year.

There was a rogue result in Germany in which the study observed a positive effect of neonicotinoids on the number of worker bees in the colony. Contextualised however, the health of the worker bees was not carried through, and within 3-6 weeks the effect was no longer seen. The lack of the negative effect is thought to be due to the foraging structure patterns of the bees in this area that more commonly fed on wild flowers than the rapeseed.

…with a capitalist interest at heart, less so than that of the long-term effects on the ecosystem that they are exploiting, these remarks seem insincere

The insects that neonicotinoids stave off is the cabbage stem flee beetle. These pesky little bugs can take a large chunk out of farmers product. During a temporary ban of three popular neonicotinoids in 2013, farmers saw a 20-30% drop in rapeseed yields. Guy Smith of the National Farmers Union, following this new report said “We strongly believe that policy decisions, such as restricting the use of neonicotinoids, must be based on sound science which gives strong evidence. And while this CEH (Centre of Ecology and Hydrology) study provides more useful information, we still don’t have that definitive evidence for the impact of neonicotinoids.”

This sentiment, unsurprisingly, was echoed by Dr. Julian Little, a representative of Bayer, the part funders of the research, in that although he had no argument with the data acquired, the conclusions are not as clear as they may appear. “They (CEH) are very much focused on a low-level reduction in honey bee colonies in the UK, and then they dismiss the fact that in Germany, honeybees actually did better on treated oilseed rape than they did on non-treated oilseed rape.”

Sustainability in this increasingly unsustainable world should be sought after…

Seemingly with a capitalist interest at heart, less so than that of the long-term effects on the ecosystem that they are exploiting, these remarks seem insincere.

Potentially a less biased commentator, Professor David Goulson from the University of Sussex and an expert in bees, seemed far more struck by the results of this study stating “In the light of these new studies, continuing to claim that use of neonicotinoids in farming does not harm bees is no longer a tenable position. In my view, we should also consider the bigger picture; the current model of farming based on huge monocultures treated with dozens of pesticides is causing devastating environmental harm, undermining vital ecosystem services that keep us all alive.”

Sustainability in this increasingly unsustainable world should be sought after and the information from this study has shown that the use of neonicotinoids in farming can no longer be carried out in clean conscience.

Freddie Metherell


Freddie has just completed his degree in biomedicine, and is now a post-graduate student at the University of Warwick. With a curiosity into most scientific fields, from astronomy to ichthyology, if data has been fit to a hypothesis, he is always keen to delve deeper. His interests include football, birds, and bees.

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