Half of Total Decline in Wild Bees Across U.K. Linked to Neonic Pesticides


Decline of wild bee populations is linked to the use of toxic, systemic neonicotinoid (neonic) pesticides used on oilseed rape (canola), according to new research done by a team of scientists at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in the United Kingdom. In addition to corn and soybeans, canola is one of the main crops treated with neonicotinoids worldwide. Neonic pesticides have long been identified as a major culprit in bee decline by independent scientists and beekeepers, yet chemical manufacturers like Bayer and Syngenta have focused on other issues such as the varroa mite. As Beyond Pesticides put it in the spring 2014 issue of Pesticides and You, the issue of pollinator decline is No Longer a Big Mystery, and urgent action is needed now to protect pollinators from these toxic pesticides.

Neonics are associated with decreased learningforaging and navigational ability, as well as increased vulnerability to pathogens and parasites as a result of suppressed bee immune systems. In addition to toxicity to bees, pesticides like neonicotinoids have been shown to also adversely affect birdsaquatic organisms and contaminate soil and waterways, and overall biodiversity.

The studyImpacts of neonicotinoid use on long-term population changes in wild bees in England, published in the journal Nature Communications, analyzed 18 years of UK national wild bee distribution data for 62 different species, and related it to amounts of neonicotinoid use. Researchers focused on figuring out which species of wild bees had been observed in different plots of land, and which of those species had disappeared over the course of the study (1994-2011).  The results of the study show the decline of species that forage on the neonicotinoid-treated canola is on average three times more than that of species that forage on other plants. By comparing the locations of these bees and their changing populations with growing patterns of canola fields across England, researchers are able to attribute half of the total decline in wild bees to the use of neonics.

According to Reuters, Ben Woodcock, Ph.D., leader of the study, said at a briefing in London that the average decline in population across all 62 species was seven percent, but the average decline among 34 species that forage on oilseed rape is higher, at 10 percent. Dr. Woodcock, an ecological entomologist at the Natural Environmental Research Council Center for Ecology and Hydrology, emphasizes the extent of the impact that their findings show. He said,

“Historically, if you just have oilseed rape, many bees tend to benefit from that because it is this enormous foraging resource all over the countryside, but this correlation study suggests that once it’s treated with neonicotinoids up to 85%, then they are starting to be exposed and it’s starting to have these detrimental impacts on them. What we can’t say is what these detrimental impacts are but what it does suggest is you can have these population declines and they can be big – I mean 30% is a big decline.”

Over the past decade, numerous studies have illuminated the negative affect that neonics have on different pollinator species, but until now little research has been performed on the chemicals long-term effects. The results of this recent study provide some of the first evidence that links the sublethal impacts of neonic exposure and large-scale population extinctions of wild bee species.

Nick Isaac, Ph.D., macro ecologist and co-author of the paper, told the Mirror that the damaging effects of the pesticide reported in small-scale studies had been replicated. “The negative effects that have been reported previously, they do scale up,” Dr. Isaac said. “They scale up to long-term, large-scale, multi-species impacts that are harmful.”

The European Commission voted to suspend the use of neonicotinoid pesticides in 2013 for two years, in order to protect its severely declining and threatened bee populations —a problem throughout Europe and the world. The moratorium came several months after the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released a report identifying “high acute risk” to honey bees from uses of certain neonicotinoid chemicals. This temporary ban is scheduled to be formally reviewed sometime this year, although to the detriment of pollinators some exemptions to this policy have already been implemented in the UK.  This recent study provides even more weight to the scientific evidence that neonicotinoids play a critical role in the ongoing decline of bees and other pollinators and could make a major difference later this year by providing evidence for ESFA to consider as it considers extending the moratorium.

This critical research comes at a time when pollinators, specifically honey bees, are gaining national attention due to their importance for pollinator services and their continued decline. Globally, progress has been made towards ending the use of neonicotinoids. In July of this year lawmakers in France approved plans to totally ban neonicotinoid pesticides by 2018. In December of 2015, Montreal, the largest city in Canada’s Quebec province, announced plans for an all-out ban on the use of bee-toxic neonicotinoid pesticides. Numerous localities in the U.S. have restricted neonicotinoid pesticides, and the states of Maryland and Connecticut have removed them from the retail market.

Despite limited action in the United States by federal agencies and Congress to discontinue the use of neonicotinoid insecticides and toxic pesticides in general, consumers and advocates around the country can create safe pollinator habitat and encourage local governments to do the same. Ultimately, the widespread adoption of organic management is necessary to protect pollinators and the environment in the long-term. Beyond Pesticides has long sought a broad-scale marketplace transition to organic practices that disallows the use of toxic synthetic pesticides by law and encourages a systems-based approach that is protective of health and the environment. For information on growing plants to protect pollinators, see our Pollinator-Friendly Seeds and Nursery Directory. Use the Bee Protective Habitat Guide to plant a pollinator garden suited for your region, and consider seeding white clover into your lawn. You can also declare your garden, yard, park or other space as pesticide-free and pollinator friendly. Sign the pledge today! Contact Beyond Pesticides for resources and factsheets available to help you organize and reach your local elected officials. Give us a call (202-543-5450) or email (info@beyondpesticides.org) for one-on-one consultation about the strategies you can take to have a positive impact on local pollinators. More information on the adverse effects neonics can be found in the Beyond Pesticides’ report  Cultivating Plants that Poison.

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