Environment: keeping bees in business

Concern over impact of systemic insecticides, especially neonicotinoids

 

The bee is not only an environmental bellwether but, critically, it sustains the world’s food production through its key role as a pollinator. Yet almost everywhere the honey bee, bumble bee and solitary wild bee exist, there has been disturbing and growing evidence that these vital species are endangered.

Loss of habitat and disease have taken a heavy toll. Ireland has 98 different species of bees and one third of them face extinction. Where intensive agricultural production takes place, the finger of blame has pointed to the use of systemic insecticides, especially neonicotinoids. Laboratory-based studies have repeatedly implicated these chemicals and the recent publication of the results of the world’s largest field trial – at 33 locations across Europe – has shown the scale of damage they cause. A second study in Canada, also published in the journal Science, suggests widespread contamination of landscapes and a toxic “cocktail effect” from multiple pesticides.

The research provides the most important evidence to date for regulators considering action against neonicotinoids. It is likely to lead to a permanent ban in the EU where the insecticides are currently prohibited on flowering crops. The negative impacts varied across different countries, leading pesticide manufacturers to question the results of the research, which they funded. But differences may be attributable to diet.

Botanist Prof Jane Stout of Trinity College described the study as the one “we have all been waiting for” as it confirms findings in laboratory settings. Although Irish farms do not have the same scale of insecticide-dependent crops as the countries featured, significant amounts of oilseed rape and winter cereal crops are grown here and involve coating of seeds with pesticide.

Prof Stout’s call for a reduction in the use of chemicals in farming is in the collective interests of farmer, consumer, bee and the environment. But it would require a shift in the way farming is done to keep it profitable as well as a greater willingess to allow wildflowers to thrive. The goal is an essential one: to ensure the bee stays in business.

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