A Buzzless Spring…
Hindsight is useless. Foresight is what’s needed, but it is far easier to prove something retrospectively. Conservation and technological science need to be forward looking, and to prime future actions. Furthermore, there’s a jumping off point where science has to prime belief. That jumping off point is often hard to determine: sometimes we have to jump before we have full scientific certainty, which is where belief becomes important.
“I know that much is wrong with our bees, and that the situation is steadily worsening.”
Much has been said and written about neonicotinoids (‘neonics’) and the plight of bees, hived and wild. I’d love to say that I fully understand it all, but I don’t; some of the science is beyond me, and some of it seems woolly. Good science is often partial, and there is much inadequate science around (often acting as a stepping stone towards good science). Yet as an entomologist who has been interested in our native bees for over thirty years and as someone who has been involved in bee keeping on and off since childhood, I know that much is wrong with our bees, and that the situation is steadily worsening. If there was a single cause we would in theory have got to the bottom of it by now, so I suspect a cocktail, a nasty cocktail.
My wife and I gave up bee keeping circa 2000 when we finally had to accept that we couldn’t keep them in the arable landscape in which we live. It was unfair on the bees; they kept dying – and not just because of poor weather or Varroa mites, or even inadequate husbandry. Moreover, we became increasingly aware that bees kept by friends in more suburban environments were faring considerably better. Much of what our own bees gathered was Oil Seed Rape (OSR), which in my opinion makes revolting honey (and not simply because it sets rock hard). Since then our local farms have increased their OSR acreage considerably.
“What all parties seem agreed upon is that seriously good research is required urgently – but good science cannot be hurried.”
In 2012 some 490,000ha of OSR (76 per cent of the UK crop) were treated with ‘neonics’, along with some 600,000ha (30 per cent) of wheat (Advisory Committee on Pesticides Data, 2012). A formal review by the European Foods Standards Agency reported in January that ‘neonics’ pose an unacceptably high risk to bees, and that the industry-sponsored evidential data upon which regulatory agencies have relied may be flawed. Their review concluded that an acute risk to honey bees is posed by dust drift from the seed treatments used in maize, OSR and cereals, and that a similar high risk is posed by residues in nectar and/or pollen. In response the European Commission is implementing a temporary ban on some neonicotinoids. This is effectively an evocation of the Precautionary Principle of the Rio Declaration, which states: ‘Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.’
Will honey bees soon be a thing of the past?
Whether this will actually help bees remains to be seen. Crops sown this autumn will not be affected by the moratorium, and two years is a pathetically small window of opportunity – especially as ‘neonics’ can persist in some soils for up to four years. Furthermore, it is unwise to assume that the alternatives to ‘neonics’ are less damaging, so we urgently need to see guidance provided to farmers and gardeners on practices to use instead. What all parties seem agreed upon is that seriously good research is required urgently – but good science cannot be hurried. Meanwhile in Wales there is perhaps some hope in the production of a Pollinator Action Plan (open for consultation until June 4th) which could be usefully extended and developed on a UK-wide basis as our bees don’t respect borders.
Why we are growing all this Oil Seed Rape in the first place is a question only naïve people like me ask…
- Matthew Oates has worked for the National Trust for over 20 years. Although passionate about butterflies he is very much an all-round naturalist and is effectively the Trust’s resident naturalist. He works closely with the Trust’s network of ecologists and naturalist rangers throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
- The Weekly Witter is a regular weekly mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about the news and what’s on their minds at the moment.