Bees are vital for producing the food we eat every day and it is estimated that 87.5% of all flowering plants rely on insects and other vertebrates to carry out pollination for reproduction (Ollerton et al., 2011). Bees are regarded as the most important insect pollinator and their agricultural economic benefits are estimated at £400 million annually in the UK alone (Powney et al., 2021)! However, since the late 1990s global bee populations have begun to decline on an exponential scale; the number of wild bee species has declined by a quarter since then. This not only threatens our economy but our entire system of food production. Based on regional, local and global collections of data gathered from museums, academic research and complemented by citizen-science efforts, Zattara and Aizen published in 2021 that approximately 25% fewer species were recorded between 2006-2015 compared to before the 1990s. The authors described the situation as “...undergoing a global decline in bee diversity that needs the immediate attention of governments and international institutions” (Zattara and Aizen, 2021).
So, why is this happening?
There are several theories as to why bees are dying off at such a rate. It is believed an assortment of parasites, pathogens, pesticides, harmful effects of electromagnetic waves, climate fluctuations, and lack of plant biodiversity resulting in poor nutrition, high rate of mortality and colony disruptions, are all contributing factors to this global catastrophe. But, in more recent years another culprit can be seen in the form of large-scale, industrial use of agricultural pesticides - a leading cause of pollinator decline according to a steadily growing body of research over the past 20 years (Stapel et al., 2000; El Hassini et al., 2005; Sánchez-Bayo et al., 2017). Neonicotinoid pesticides, in particular have been proven to be the most harmful to honeybees (Fairbrother et al., 2014), inflicting harmful physical and behavioural impacts including a reduction in food consumption, reproduction, worker survival, colony survival, and foraging activity, and in most cases paralysing the bees completely. Many of these effects are initially sub-lethal but result in disruption to the colony and subsequent colony collapse. In 2018, the UK government backed EU proposals for tighter restrictions on neonicotinoid pesticides, including expanding a partial ban on the use of three neonicotinoids – Clothianidin, Imidacloprid and Thiamethoxam. However, under the new restrictions, governments retained the right to consider and authorise emergency use of the above pesticides.
In January 2021, the UK joined 10 EU countries including Belgium, Denmark and Spain, in granting emergency use of Thiamethoxam to combat a virus threatening sugar beet seeds, the beet yellows virus, and which has halved farmer yields in worst cases. Although the pesticide was not deployed due to cold weather early last year slowing the spread of the virus, the bad news is that the government has now ignored their scientific advisers and have granted permission to sugar beet farmers to use this pesticide in 2022. The initial decision to allow the use of neonicotinoids during 2021 was made to directly protect the sugar beet industry but goes against the government’s own advice suggesting that “the environmental risks posed by neonicotinoids – particularly to our bees and pollinators – are greater than previously understood, supporting the case for further restrictions.” The government declared that “the strictly time limited emergency authorisation of this neonicotinoid treatment will provide emergency protection against this virus”. However, the long-term effects of this pesticide on pollinators and ecosystem at large have not been mentioned. Furthermore seasonal losses are easily estimated with figures given ranging from £0.1 million to £52 million. The long-term economic impacts that the loss of pollinators will result in may be far greater and are much harder to calculate.
Unfortunately, the arguments for authorising the use of neonicotinoids in emergency situations centres around a lack of viable alternative for pest control, however, there are in fact several alternative solutions available. In 2019, research by Jactel and colleagues asked this very question. They considered eight categories of potential alternative methods:
Other synthetic or chemical insecticides.
Biological control with macroorganisms, including predators and parasitoids.
Biological control with microorganisms, including entomopathogenic fungi, virus and bacteria.
Biological control through farming practices, including intercropping, flower strips, grass strips, hedgerows, crop rotation, irrigation and more.
Use of semiochemicals.
Physical methods, including uprooting, pruning, application of thermal, electrical, light or acoustic treatments, physical barriers.
Genetically improved plant varieties produced either by classical plant breeding or by genetic modification techniques.
Plant defense elicitors.
The results of the study found that for the 152 authorised uses of neonicotinoids in France as of 01/01/2018, 71% of cases could be substituted with either another chemical insecticide or a non-chemical solution, 7% could only be substituted for a non-chemical solution and 4% could not be adequately substituted. The remaining 18% were only substitutable with another class of chemical insecticide. This means that in 78% of cases there was a viable non-chemical alternative to using neonicotinoids.
Indeed one may be thinking how this sits with our Environmental Bill to halt biodiversity loss by 2030, but the situation is complex and although should by no means champion profit over protecting our vital ecological systems – how does this impact the farmers and their livelihoods? The billion-dollar pesticide industry seems to be winning, but funding educational programmes on sustainable farming can greatly alter current methods which, in the long term can foster better farming practices. Environmental campaigners such as the charity Bees for Development believe that emergency use of neonicotinoids is a short-term solution which does not address the issue and that there should be “a greater focus on having ‘strong, resilient bio-abundance' - which is letting things grow properly and not cutting them down” said Milan Wiercx van Rhijn in an interview with the BBC. This could mean incorporating alternative methods that hold potential benefits for improving biodiversity and connectivity in farmland habitats. This highlights the need for policy-making to be led not just by short-term economic impacts, but by environmental issues and their long-term impacts. Furthermore, many farmers recognise the need for further
research into alternative solutions. They agree that the emergency use of neonicotinoids is a temporary relief which in fact may slow down research for more resilient crop varieties because the immediate sugar crisis has been avoided, at least for the season. The UK government has an ongoing National Pollinator Strategy covering 2014 to 2024 aiming to improve the state of bees and other pollinating insects. You can read more about the implementation and monitoring of this policy here.
Actively providing more knowledge about nature and natural processes in our society is one of the major goals of Biodiversity and Environmental Education Society (BEES). It seems now more than ever is the time to become an ambassador for nature and to be able to back-up the work of scientists, as a trained naturalist and informed citizen. With modules ranging
from entomology to law & legislation, we provide an opportunity for people to engage with and experience nature and all it has to offer, as well as teaching the necessary knowledge and skills required to be a successful nature guide. After all,
"No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they haven’t experienced." - Sir David Attenborough
What can you do as an individual to protect bee populations?
Try and avoid pesticide and herbicide use.
Don’t start your garden clean-up too soon and wait until temperatures are consistently above 10°C. Bees like to winter in hollowed out stems of last year's plants.
Bee-friendly in your garden and plant wildflowers and indigenous plants to attract bees all year round.
Provide shelter and water. Let the grass grow.
Increase your awareness and appreciation of insects. Attend educational events with your family. Find events near you, within the Wildlife Trusts for instance. Or register on our BEE a Nature Guide course programme.
Get involved in your local council. You can advocate for more policies and practices to help insects and protect nature. Make your council plant verges of wildflowers or transform bus-stops into bee-stops.
Support science and volunteer in citizen research. For instance, help the bumblebees and count them on a monthly walk from March to October (BeeWalk).
For further details:
Farah, Victoriya and Elena
El Hassani A., Dacher, M., Gauthier, M. and Armengaud, C. (2005). Effects of sublethal doses of fipronil on the behaviour of the honeybee (Apis mellifera). Pharmacology, biochemistry, and behavior, 82 (1): 30-9. https://doi: 10.1016/j.pbb.2005.07.008.
Fairbrother, A., Purdy, J., Anderson, T. and Fell, R. (2014). Risks of neonicotinoid insecticides to honeybees. Environmental Toxicology & Chemistry, 33: 719-731. https://doi.org/10.1002/etc.2527
Goulson, D. (2013). An overview of the environmental risks posed by neonicotinoid pesticides. Journal of applied biology, 50, 4: 977-987. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.12111
Jactel, H., Verheggen, F., Thiéry, D., Escobar-Gutiérrez, A. J., Gachet, E., Desneux, N., the Neonicotinoids Working Group (2019). Alternatives to neonicotinoids. Environment International, 129: 423-429.
Ollerton, J., Winfree, R. and Tarrant, S. (2011). How many flowering plants are pollinated by animals? Oikos, 120: 321-326.
Powney, G.D., Harrower, C. A., Outhwaite, C. and Isaac, N. J. B. (2020). Biodiversity and ecosystem services – status of pollinating insects – technical background document. National Statistics. England Biodiversity Indicators 2020. Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/england-biodiversity-indicators
Sánchez-Bayo F, Belzunces L and, Bonmatin JM. (2017). Lethal and sublethal effects, and incomplete clearance of ingested imidacloprid in honey bees (Apis mellifera). Ecotoxicology, 26:1199-1206.
Stanley, D. A., Garratt, M. P.D., Wickens, J. B., Wickens, V. J., Potts, S. G. and Raine, N. E. (2015). Neonicotinoid pesticide exposure impairs crop pollination services provided by bumblebees. Nature, 528 (7583): 548-550.
Stapel, J. O., Cortesero, A. M., and Lewis, W. J. (2000). Disruptive sublethal effects of insecticides on biological control. Biological Control 2000, 17: 243-249.