If you stand quietly in our garden at the moment and tune your hearing below the chatter of the small birds, all you will hear is the buzzing drone that is the engine of fertility: the honey bees, bumble bees, hover flies and other insects that pollinate the flowering crops, plants and trees.
There were a few hours one day this week when the air was completely still, so I took the opportunity to stick a lens in the hollyhocks and photograph some bees. The little ones with the pointed tails and orange ruff are Carder Bees Bombus pascuorum and the bigger bees with the white bottoms are White-tailed Bumble Bees Bombus lucorum. We are loosing these extraordinary creature in huge numbers and if the decline continues unchecked we face an ecological disaster that we may never recover from.
Here is Emma Hockridge, head of policy at the Soil Association commenting this April in The Guardians’ Eco Audit: “Honey bees and the often forgotten massive number of wild pollinators have huge value to us and the functioning of the natural environment. It is estimated that pollinating insects add some £430m to the British economy by pollinating crops. Yet, as has been widely publicised, they are in trouble. One of the major culprits has been found to be the neonicotinoid pesticide group of systemic insecticides. The evidence is so strong that European member states are set to vote on whether to temporarily ban a number of them today. We are dismayed that the UK government is planning to vote against this ban and we and others have been strongly urging them to rethink their position.
So what else can be done to protect pollinators? A synthesis of 39 studies on 23 crops around the world published earlier this year in the journal Ecology Letters confirms that wild bees are more abundant in diversified systems such as organic farms. Organic farmers are already proving that it’s perfectly possible to farm without using harmful systemic insecticides like neonicotinoids. It seems almost too obvious to mention, but perhaps worth a reminder that we can all help value bees by supporting organic farmers and choosing to eat organic food.”
In April of this year the European Union voted for a two-year restriction on neonicotinoid insecticides. Had the vote been unanimous then the EU would have banned these insecticides outright. Instead because Britain and 7 other countries voted against the motion despite the evidence of 30 separate scientific studies which had all found a link between the neonicotinoids, which attack the insects’ nervous systems, and falling bee numbers, the best that the EU could manage was a two year moratorium. The proposal by the European Commission, the EU’s legislative body, to ban the insecticides was based on a specific study by the European Food Safety Authority, which found in January this year that the pesticides did pose a risk to bees’ health. There is a comprehensive explanation of the role of neonicotinoids in the decline in bee numbers here: http://beestrawbridge.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/what-are-neonicotinoid-pesticides-and.html
The British government argued that the science was incomplete and a ban could have a serious impact on food production. The Brits wanted to wait for yet more evidence before committing to the Europe-wide policy.
Environment Minister Lord de Mauley is quoted, in the Independent, as saying that: “Having a healthy bee population is a top priority for us, but we did not support the proposal for a ban because our scientific evidence doesn’t support it. Significant countries agree with us that a ban is not the right action to take and we will work with them to get much better evidence. We will now work with farmers to cope with the consequences as a ban will carry significant costs for them.”
The significant countries in question, by the way, were America (not part of Europe), Spain and Germany. The Czech Republic, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Austria and Portugal also voted against the ban. Ireland, Lithuania, Finland and Greece abstained.
Publicly, ministers have expressed concern for bees. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, was recently quoted as saying that: “If we do not look after our bee populations, very serious consequences will follow.” Nice sound bite. In private, however, the government has been presenting a very different face. In a letter released to the Observer newspaper under freedom of information rules, the environment secretary, Owen Paterson, told the chemicals company Syngenta that he was “extremely disappointed” by the European commission’s proposed ban. He said that “the UK has been very active” in opposing it and “our efforts will continue and intensify in the coming days”.
What makes the British governments position so completely appalling is that they are swimming in a sea of overwhelming scientific evidence that shows how changes in farming methods combined with the use of insecticides is killing the pollinating insects. They are also very aware of the hugely important economical and social benefits delivered by insect pollinators. As far back as 2009, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation published a paper on the “services provided by bees”. One chapter was entitled, “The value of bees for crop pollination”, here is an excerpt from it:
“It is estimated that about one third of all plants or plant products eaten by humans are directly or indirectly dependent on bee pollination. More than half of the world’s diet of fat and oil comes from oilseeds such as cotton, rape, sunflower, coconut, groundnut and oil palm. Even though some of these have special pollinators belonging to other types of insects, these plants all depend on, or benefit from bee pollination to some extent. In addition, many food crops and forage for cattle are grown from seeds of insect-pollinated plants. The great value of bees as pollinators has been known for many years, but unfortunately, this knowledge is not widely appreciated and understood. The value of bee pollination in Western Europe is estimated to be 30-50 times the value of honey and wax harvests in this region. In Africa, bee pollination is sometimes estimated to be 100 times the value of the honey harvest, depending on the type of crop. In a country like Denmark, about 3,000 tonnes of honey is harvested every year. It has a value of 60 million DKK or about €7.6 million. However, the value of oilseeds, fruits and berries created by the pollination work of bees is estimated to be between 1,600 and 3,000 million DKK, equivalent to €200 and €400 million.”
More recently David Goulson, Professor of Biological Sciences and a bee expert at the University of Stirling’s Institute of Biological & Environmental Sciences added his voice in the Guardian: “Bees pollinate about 1,500 different crops worldwide, including most fruit and vegetables; imagine a world without apples, strawberries, blueberries, runner beans, courgettes, tomatoes and many, many more. About 35% of all human food is pollinated by insects, mainly bees of one sort or another, and this service has been estimated to be worth €153 billion. The UK alone benefits from insect pollinators to the tune of €530 million. However, bees are far more important than even these huge figures suggest. The majority of plants worldwide are pollinated by bees, so natural ecosystems from the flower-rich chalk downland of England to the rain forests of the Amazon depend on them. The mutualism between bees and plants is at the very heart of the functioning of life on Earth.”
So if we know how important insect pollinators are to the survival of life on Earth and we know that honey bee numbers are declining and we have a significant body of evidence that neonicotinoids (and other insecticides) fatally damage the nervous system of bees and are, in all probability, a significant contributor to their decline. Why would you not ban them or at least support a moratorium until such time as the evidence is incontrovertible or disproved? I have found it very difficult to understand the British governments’ position. However a comment by Julian Little, a spokesman for Bayer Cropscience, perhaps reveals the shared ‘white heat of technology’ mindset of ministers and chemical companies alike: “Call me an optimist, but I still believe the commission will see sense. There is so much field evidence to demonstrate safe use [and] an increasing number of member states who reject the apparent drive towards museum agriculture in the European Union.”
Museum agriculture is presumably any kind of ‘small’ farming that doesn’t use chemicals from Bayer Cropscience or Syngenta? All the organic farms where wild bees are abundant then?