Guest blog – Britain’s bees are under threat by Andrew Pendleton of FoE

andrew_pendleton_rdax_146x146Andrew Pendleton is the Head of Campaigns for Friends of the Earth.

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 decline

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.


Bee-harming pesticides

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.


22 Replies to “Guest blog – Britain’s bees are under threat by Andrew Pendleton of FoE”

  1. After the third or fourth drink the bee records may get increasingly implausible! Seriously, though, I am in favour of encouraging public awareness of bees and using ‘citizen science’ to widen our knowledge of where they occur.
    The threat to bees and other pollinators from neonics is very disturbing and I hope the campaign is successful.

    Should we opt to exit the EU come 23 June what are the odds that the UK government will quickly open the door to general usage of neonicotinoids? Pretty high I would imagine.

  2. Andrew, thank you. This is one of the clearest, coolest, well structured pieces I’ve read recently on any environmental issue – and from a ‘pressure’ group, too. Well done on the writing – I shall use it as a model for some of mine. (Love ‘growingly’, by the way.)

    I know some of my long suffering friends sigh when I send them yet another petition to sign, or strident piece to read, but even the less willing ones will be getting this. And I’ll write my own #30DaysWild blog piece about bees today.

    And a bee question – I know there are more bee-friendly pot plants, and these days, some of the better growers are labelling them as such, but here’s the thing: I live in a flat with a tiny balcony four floors up on a major crossroads into a coastal town. Last year was my first summer there and all I had was a fuchsia someone had given me. I was amazed it was visited by occasional bees and hoverflies, so I’m looking round at the moment for three (all there’s room for) plants or shrubs which are top notch for pollinators… I’d be thrilled to get recommendations from anyone.

    Thank you.

    1. For pollinators and insects in general my preferred flowers that I use in garden tubs annually are: Cosmos sp., single flowered Dahlias and Calendulas. As the first two species are large flower shapes there is no reason why bumblebees will not find them when four floors up. Many of the commoner bumble-bee species like Bombus terrestris and B. lucorum and occasionally B. lapidarius will readily visit such flowers, provided there is some rough ground, or a gardener’s open compost heap or places with long grass or gardens with some old mouse holes nearby. For these bees need somewhere to nest above all else and this fact is often forgotten.

  3. That article headline… Uh. It could be better phrased.

    Besides, we all know that the ban is gone the day after the referendum. The Brexiteers will return us to being the filthy man of Europe that we used to be. We’re screwed.

  4. As a matter of interest, how do we know farmers aren’t buying neonics ‘for wheat’ and using them on oilseed rape instead? Is there anything to stop them, apart from the threat of prosecution, which is presumably very small. Just because the rules say one thing, doesn’t mean they’re being followed.

    1. I think we can be fairly sure that farmers aren’t buying winter wheat seeds treated with neonicotinoids in order to grow oilseed rape.

  5. I fear bees are the visible tip of an iceberg which is behind much of the decline in our birds – the impact of long term, heavy use of insecticides on the 70% of our land which is farmland which has probably led to an order of magnitude decline in the biomass of the insects so many birds depend on. Like with DDT, it isn’t just the birds that are in danger – it is us humans who, however hard we try to pretend otherwise, are still part of the ecosystem. That we don’t have methodology to measure the effects in the way we do with birds is no good reason to ignore the issue, any more than the uncertainties around climate change mean we should ignore it.

  6. Andrew excellent post, thank you. Would FoE down south be prepared to send a direct email to all its members asking them to sign Mark’s petition? There are many, many reasons for doing so, but there is a specific one relevant to your campaign. The domination of heather that driven grouse shooting encourages means that some hills do turn purple in August. Rather than being pretty you could see this a nasty discolouration which I think is more accurate. Some species like heather, I know honey bees do, but many do not and even for those that do what happens when the heather is not in bloom what else do they have to feed on, famine – glut – famine? The virtual heather monoculture (little evidence of any other flower being there in abundance) that grouse shooting encourages is not good for pollinators surely. As hundreds of thousands of hectares of land is affected, just for ‘sports’ shooting, then this is a particularly damaging and ludicrous reason why our pollinators are in trouble – ecological restoration of our uplands could very much help revive their fortunes. Another point to raise perhaps in your bee campaign (wouldn’t this be a good subject for research?) and there are plenty of other reasons why FoE EWNI should promote Mark’s petition anyway.

  7. The inference that OSR yield was increased by lack of neonics use should be taken with a large pinch of salt. OSR yields yo-yo all the time, and growers will have been more vigilant about crop protection knowing that protection at the seedling stage was absent. It’s not only insect attacks that threaten OSR grower profits but it is also afflicted by club root, Phoma leaf spot and stem canker, Sclerotinia stem rot, Verticillium wilt disease and Light Leaf Spot – the incidence of all has increased with increasing OSR area and frequency in rotations. The yield difference between years could be attributed to increased attention to detail, IMHO. And the weather.

    Further, AHDB/ADAS research shows that there may be surprisingly little impact of defoliation on green area or dry matter yield of OSR. Once emerged, given good growing conditions, OSR has significant inherent ability to compensate for loss of leaf area – this work supports the well-known capacity of OSR to compensate for early leaf losses, as often seen when it is grazed heavily by wood pigeons. It also supports the argument that neonic seed treatment is cosmetic, as the crop often recovers and there has been no discernible rise in OSR yield that can be attributed to the use of neonics.

    The use of neonics is so widespread that it was possible to have an arable rotation of wheat, OSR and barley where all crops were seed-treated – every year – with neonics. No break at all for soil biota. Under the moratorium use on winter cereal seed is still allowed, so the widespread addition of neonics to soil goes on. While the EU bans active ingredients when there is evidence of risk to human health – the herbicides amitrole and isoproturon were banned (eventually!) recently because of their endocrine disrupting effects on humans – this is a glacially slow slow process and action is taken only after damage occurs. We need a pro-active regulatory system that works.

    1. Really interesting comment FC, although, to be fair, I don’t think the article was suggesting that the increase in rapeseed yield was caused by the lack of neonics, just that not using them had clearly not resulted in a disastrous drop in yield.

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