Here’s a prescription for a fine afternoon on a warm day in June.
Take smartphone and drink of choice. Sit in garden. Wait for sun to come out and bees to take to the wing, use smartphone to record which type of bees you see and how many. Repeat with second drink of choice. And with further drinks if the mood so takes you.
If this sounds appealing, then the Great British Bee Count is the app you’ve been waiting for.
This is the third year Friends of the Earth – with support from Buglife and Waitrose – has asked people to record bee sightings in their parks, gardens and open countryside using a free app which is available for iphone and Android. The count runs until the end of June.
The aim is to raise awareness of Britain’s bees: the number of bee species (over 250), the threats they face and what people can do to help them – such as creating bee-friendly habitats in their home and community.
The data is of scientific value too. It will be will uploaded to the National Biodiversity Network so it can add to the UK-wide picture of bee species health, numbers and locations.
Bee numbers are in decline, some species have already gone (20 since 1900) and others are being confined to increasingly narrow swathes of land. Our bees are in trouble – which is why Friends of the Earth’s Bee Cause campaign to protect them is so important.
Bee decline is a syndrome. It has a number of causes. The loss of more than 97 per cent of the nation’s wildflower meadows since the 1930’s is one significant factor. Mono-cropping on farmland that has replaced the meadows compounds the problems as crops only flower for a short period each season, depriving bees of season-long forage.
Climate change too is an increasing threat – for example certain bee species and their preferred flowers are likely to become out of synch because the moments and seasons when flora and fauna thrive are shifting.
But growingly we know that the use of some pesticides is also contributing to the decline of our bee species. That’s why, in December 2013 a ban came into force on three of a family of five nerve agent insecticides called neonicotinoids.
The ban was supported by a majority of European Member States. The UK government however (courtesy of the then Secretary of State, Owen Paterson) voted – and vigorously lobbied – against the ban.
We know, with a growing level of certainty, that this family of pesticides harms bees. But, as I may not need to spell out to readers of this blog, there is also evidence that they harm bird populations and even butterflies too. And yet the ban is coming under increasing pressure from lobbyists and commercial interests.
National Farmers Union
Last year, the National Farmers’ Union and pesticide companies worked together to apply for the emergency use of two of the banned chemicals in some locations on the grounds it was essential to combat a pest that attacks the oilseed rape crop.
Official statistics later emerged showing that average UK oilseed rape crop yield actually grew by nearly 7% in the first year without access to the banned chemicals.
The process by which permission was granted was handled in secret and it wasn’t until Friends of the Earth filed court proceedings and Freedom of Information requests that the government was forced to publish the background documents and advice that underscored its decision.
Earlier this year, the same toxic cabal of NFU and purveyors of pesticides attempted to get another ‘derogation’ under the ban to use the banned chemicals on this year’s crop of rapeseed. But their first application was turned down last month on the recommendation of the Government’s Expert Committee on Pesticides.
Pesticide ban under threat
Cause for celebration? Not yet! The NFU has just resubmitted a second application and the Expert Committee on Pesticides will – in all likelihood – look at this revised proposal to use seeds treated with neonicotinoids on Tuesday 14 June.
We have made opposing submissions (which are published for all to see – at the bottom of this blog) but without their evidence in front of us we are always at a disadvantage. We hope good sense and sound science prevails, but of course in the teeth of an EU referendum who knows what sort of principled or evidence-based policy making is likely to be defenestrated.
Next year, the European Commission will ask nations to review the latest evidence from European Food Safety Agency [EFSA] on neonic pesticides. The chances are that EFSA will recommend making the ban permanent and perhaps even extending it to some of the crops, such as wheat, not currently covered.
Friends of the Earth will be working hard to ensure the ban stays in place as, with each new study, the evidence that neonicotinoids are harmful to bees (and increasingly birds and butterflies) only hardens.
Your time in the garden spotting bees this month will be well-spent – indulge yourself and enjoy it. Count as many as you can. Grow flowers bees enjoy and edible crops they can pollinate.
To save bees we will need a big change in how land is used, but we will also need to ensure we do not poison them.
And for that, it’s time our decision makers turned their backs on neonicotinoid pesticides and helped farmers adopt better, safer ways to protect their crops.