EU court upholds partial pesticide ban to protect bees

Ruling follows growing debate about the consequences of chemical use in farming

The first United Nations World Bee Day will be held on May 20th. Photograph: Reuters/Yves Herman

A German supermarket has emptied its shelves of thousands of products pollinated by bees to highlight the growing threat to the insects posed by chemicals.

Apples, baked goods, courgettes, marinated meats and even chamomile-scented toilet paper were removed by the Penny discount chain ahead of Thursday’s decision by an EU court to uphold a partial 2013 European ban on three insecticides.

The European Commission ban on the chemicals known as neonicotinoids covers two active substances developed by Bayer CropScience – imidacloprid and clothianidin – as well as Syngenta’s thiamethoxam.

The General Court of the European Union upheld the ban in confirmation of the EU’s “precautionary principle”, which allows the commission to take preventative measures to preserve human health or the environment even if scientific uncertainty over long-term harm remains.


But the court annulled restrictions on the use of BASF’s fipronil, a different class of pesticide, because the commission had failed to carry out a proper assessment of the impact of a ban.

Since 2013 it has been illegal to spray neonicotinoids on maize and rapeseed in the EU but it is permissible for other crops such as sugar beet.

Facing a widespread phenomenon of bee deaths in colonies across Europe, the commission review and Thursday’s ruling follow a growing debate about the consequences of chemical use in farming.

Last month EU countries backed a proposal to ban all use of neonicotinoids outdoors, allowing only limited use in greenhouses.

Bee pollination

Syngenta and Bayer said they were disappointed with the ruling, which can be appealed within the next two months, insisting its products were safe when used properly. They said a link between pesticides and bee mortality had yet to be proved conclusively and that insecticide bans would see farmers return to less safe chemicals.

Environment group Greenpeace said the court’s ruling “sets the EU’s priorities straight ... to protect people and nature, not company profit margins”.

Wild bees, butterflies and other insects are estimated to have a global economic benefit of €500 billion. However their population has decreased “drastically” in the last two decades, according to Prof Gerlind Lehmann, an evolutionary ecology specialist at Berlin’s Humboldt University.

German supermarket chain Penny says 60 per cent of its 2,500 products are directly or indirectly dependent on bee pollination.

Dangerous substances

Lower Saxony’s environment minister Olaf Lies praised Penny’s empty-shelf campaign, saying it “showed to us in a frighteningly clear way the consequences of unchecked insect mortality”.

With more than half of Germany’s 585 wild bee varieties now threatened, chancellor Angela Merkel warned about bee mortality on Wednesday in a Bundestag address.

Oliver Krischer, a Green Party MP and the official beekeeper on the Bundestag roof, welcomed as “very important” the ruling in light of new insecticide research.

“The European Commission says these substances are dangerous,” he said, “because they kill bees and cause ‘bee Alzheimer’s’ so they cannot orient themselves, that’s why it can’t be used.”

The first United Nations World Bee Day will be held on May 20th.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin