Prohibiting suppliers of its own-brand fresh produce from using neonicotinoid insecticides until they are shown to be safe to honeybees is part of the new radical Plan Bee, launched by the Co-op last Wednesday (28 January), in an attempt to reverse the worrying decline in the British honeybee population. On the same day The Guardian reported that these chemicals are implicated in billions of honeybee deaths worldwide.
Bees perform a vital role in the pollination of crops
and biodiversity in the UK.
“This is just another example of organisations reacting in an emotive area without reference to the science base,” says BCPC Chairman, Dr Colin Ruscoe. “The well-documented decline in honeybee populations is a complex problem. Losses are due to a combination of issues weather, the Varroa mite and other factors which require further research. That is why Defra is putting an extra £4.3m of funding into bee health research.”
For several years, bee colonies have been suffering. European Foul Brood (EFB) disease and Varroa mite infections have increased. Successive wet springs have reduced foraging, decreasing honey yields and affecting bee health going into the winter. New crop rotations, more effective weed control and reduction of crop diversity may also have contributed.
At the same time, insecticide (including neonicotinoid) seed treatments have become more commonly used – offering lower use rates and eliminating spray drift. When applied as a seed treatment, extremely small amounts of neonicitinoid can be expressed in nectar but these are well below any acute or chronic effect level in bees.
In Germany last spring, there was some evidence that dust from concentrated seed treatments was blown into hedgerows and field margins, resulting in exposure of foraging bees and some kills at the hive. This problem has now been controlled by improved seed treatment formulations and drilling practices.
Colony declines are not due to neonicotinoid insecticides in normal use. The problems seem more likely to occur with small-scale beekeepers, who may pay less attention to hygiene than do professional apiarists. It is no coincidence that it is the small-scale beekeepers in France who have blamed poor performance by their bees on agrochemical companies with deep pockets.
“The additional research committed by the Secretary of State for Defra is very welcome and it is encouraging to see that a major supermarket - Sainsbury’s, is supporting projects like Operation Bumblebee, which benefit bumble- and honeybees alike,” says Dr Ruscoe.
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