Neonics: What is bad for bees is also bad for us

The use of neonicotinoids on oilseed rape has been linked to the long term wild bee decline

The plight of bees is well known. Their populations are declining and colony collapse disorder is a real problem. It is becoming increasingly clear that if  bees are in difficulty, it is a problem for us too.

The consequences of losing our pollinators would be serious for human well-being.

So, we should take heed of the evidence that tells us why bee decline is happening – and take action to stop it.

The latest UK study to be released highlights again the dangers of neonicotinoids. Neonics, a type of pesticide, are banned in the EU as they are dangerous to bees and other pollinators. Repeated studies have shown the immediate effects on individual bees and colonies. Now research conducted over 18 years by researchers at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology links the immediate effects with long-term declines in wild bee populations. Five of the worst affected wild bee species in the UK saw their geographical distribution areas reduced by more than 20% in the study period.

This is the first study to look at the population level impacts and it highlights the link between declining populations and neonics. The study shows that while the farming of oilseed rape has previously been attributed to rising bee populations. Once neonics are applied to the seed, bee populations start declining.

This research is further strong evidence that the ban on neonics needs to be strengthened and defended.

The EU must not bow to pressure to weaken it. And, at both EU and Member State level, the guidelines for exemptions from the ban and the authorisation panels considering applications for exemptions, need to take into account the negative, long-term impacts of the use of neonics.

It’s how neonics work which causes harm

Neonics have been shown to be particularly harmful to bees. The reasons for this include:

• Neonics are systemic – they are absorbed into every cell of the plant, making all parts poisonous to bees

• Neonics are harmful to bees even if they are only exposed to small doses. This can affect their ability to learn, and in turn contributes to colony collapse disorder

• Neonics are persistent. Traces remain in the environment long after they are used

The new evidence links these effects to long term consequences. And these are consequences we can’t ignore. The implications are too important. This becomes clear when you look further down the line, to how the loss of bees also has implications for us.

We need pollinators for more than just food

Although of course essential to food production, there are other implications to losing our pollinators. Without pollinators, we would also be in serious trouble, with hazardous health implications.

Based on the hypothesis that all pollinators could eventually disappear, researchers were able to calculate the reduction in crops and the increase in diseases. According to their findings, the complete loss of all pollinators would directly lead to 1.42 million more deaths worldwide – a 2.7% increase every year.

This is because without the crops that we depend on bees to pollinate and the essential vitamins and nutrients they provide, we are more vulnerable to serious diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer.

The evidence is there, we need to act on it

With research indicating that Belgium lost 34% of its honeybee colonies in 2012-2013 alone, there is a clear and urgent need to protect bees from further decline. An essential contribution will be maintaining the EU ban on neonics.

Further, other pesticides known to work in the same way as neonics should not be allowed on the market without further testing to confirm their environmental impact. This follows the precautionary principle, which is designed precisely to ensure that something is not allowed (in this case a chemical) when there is uncertainty as to whether it will have a negative effect.

This approach is the basis of the current legal framework and is essential to protect us. It is a better and safer approach to regulation than those who act like chemicals can be allowed onto the market unless and until they are proven actually harmful.

Protecting bees from neonics needs a commitment on two levels.

The EU needs to remain committed to listening to the evidence and maintaining the ban, despite pressure from the chemical and farming industries. Yet the ban is less meaningful if there is not the support from EU Member States, whose job it is to review the applications for exemptions from the ban.

If the ban on neonics is going to make a positive difference and protect bees and us, then it needs to be applied.

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