Sci-Tech

Poison ban is good for bees

Damian Carrington

Europe has banned widely used pesticides in a bid to save pollinators and boost food production.

A global decline in the number of bees has spurred European Union policy makers to ban insecticides for two years. (Reuters)

The world's most widely used insecticides, linked to harm to bees, will be banned in the European Union for two years, after a vote in Brussels this week.

What are neonicotinoids?
Neonicotinoids are a class of pesticide that acts as an insect nerve agent. They are mostly used as a seed treatment – meaning the chemical pervades the plant, including the nectar and pollen on which bees feed – to stop insects in the soil attacking the seed and other pests destroying the plant. They have been in use for more than a decade and were an improvement on earlier pesticides because they are thought to be harmless to humans and other mammals.

Why have they been banned?
An increasing number of high-quality scientific studies in the past year have linked neonicotinoids to serious harm in bees. This has raised fears that the pesticides are an important factor in the plummeting populations of bees, along with diseases and widespread loss of habitat.

Is the science conclusive?
No, partly because it's hard to conduct field experiments when neonicotinoids are nearly ubiquitous in farmland. A recent government study in the United Kingdom failed after the control hives that were meant to be free of the pesticides were contaminated by a nearby field. But the studies that have been done have persuaded most European governments that the risk is serious enough to justify a precautionary suspension for two years across the European Union. Chemical companies have not helped their cause by keeping most of their data secret.

Why does it matter?
Without bees, there would be little food, because everything from corn and tomatoes to apples and almonds grow from flowers that need pollinating. Fast-declining populations of pollinators have been identified as a serious risk to global food production.

Why didn't existing regulation weed out any problems?
Ninety percent of pollination is performed by wild bees, moths, hover flies and other insects, but neonicotinoids have only ever been tested by regulators on honey bees. The neonicotinoids were only tested for a few days to check for immediate lethal effects, rather than sub-lethal effects that could, for example, weaken bees' defences against disease. Cocktails of pesticides, as used by farmers, are not tested either.

Could the ban make things worse?
Chemical companies and UK ministers have argued that food production could slump. But there's little evidence of this from countries such as France and Italy which already had partial bans – perhaps because neonicotinoids are often used as a prophylactic, ie whether there are pests or not. Chemical companies also warn of a return to older pesticides that are even more harmful to bees, but again there is little evidence for this and recent farming trends are towards using natural predators and crop rotation to control pests.

Is it a total ban?
No. Only three neonicotinoids will be suspended and only from flowering crops, on which bees feed. Neonicotinoids will still be used on winter crops, when bees are dormant, and in greenhouses.

What happens next?
The European commission will review new scientific evidence and data on the impact of the suspension within two years. The suspension will place pressure on the use of neonicotinoids in other regions, such as in the US where a coalition of beekeepers, environmental groups and food campaigners is suing the federal Environmental Protection Agency for failing to protect pollinators. – © Guardian News & Media 2013

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