(Beyond Pesticides, September 30, 2008) A group of insect-killing sprays known as neonicotinoids that are widely used in UK farming have now been banned in four other European countries because they are thought to be killing bees. Italy has just joined Germany, Slovenia and France in banning the sprays. This week the Italian government issued an immediate suspension of these sprays after they accepted that they are killing bees. Yesterday, the Britain’s Soil Association (SA) wrote to Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for the Environment, urging him to ban the sprays in the UK with immediate effect.
In the letter, SA Policy Director Peter Melchett wrote, “I fear it is typical of the current extraordinarily lax approach to pesticide regulation in the UK that we look like being one of the last of the major farming countries in the EU to wake up to the threat to our honeybees.” He also stated that the UK’s current pesticide regulation “is too dominated by scientists from one side of the debate about pesticide safety, fails to take adequate account of the public interest as against the interest of the chemical industry and some farmers, and fails adequately to apply the precautionary principal to the use of these chemicals.”
There is worldwide concern at widespread and devastating deaths of honey bees over the last two years. Beekeepers have reported potentially catastrophic loss of bees from their hives ranging anywhere from 30-90 percent. Britain’s beekeepers have reported that close to one in three hives have failed to make it through last winter and spring. This “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD) is not just a problem for beekeepers and farmers, but for consumers as well, since bee pollination is essential for crop production. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that one out of every three mouthfuls of food is dependent on bee pollination, and globally up to two-thirds of all major crops rely on pollination, mainly by bees.
The products implicated in bee deaths, clothianidin, imidacloprid, fipronil, and thiamethoxam, are approved to kill insects on a wide range of crops in the UK including very widely grown oilseed rape (canola), barley, and sugar beet. They are also cleared for use in ornamental plant and hop production. The use of these chemicals on oilseed rape is of particular concern, as the crop’s yellow flowers are very attractive to honey bees, and the crop has become popular with bee keepers.
Mr. Melchett said, “We want the Government to act today to remove this threat to Britain’s honey bees. The UK Government is almost alone in the EU in fighting against proposed new, tighter European controls on farm sprays, and in the light of what has happened to honey bees, we are calling on Hilary Benn to back European proposals for tighter controls on farm sprays.”
Since their introduction by Bayer CropScience in the USA in 2003, these neonicotinoid sprays have been linked to the devastating loss of millions of honey bees in a number of countries. Germany banned the pesticides after beekeepers in the Baden-Wurttenberg region reported that two thirds of their bees died in May following the application of clothianidin. In 1995 bee keepers in North Dakota took Bayer to court when a third of their bees were killed by imacloprid. In France, a third of the honey bee population was killed after widespread use of imidacloprid.
Organic farming relies on a number of techniques to avoid the use of sprays that kill insects, including not growing the same or similar crops every year, and encouraging natural predators of insect pests (like wild birds, ladybirds and lacewings). USDA’s National Organic Program sets standards for what products are allowed in US organic production. Under Soil Association organic rules, only four sprays can be used in Britain, compared to over 300 available to non-organic farmers.