UK Government Finds Link Between Insecticides and Bee Decline

A government-backed review of bee decline in the UK has found that the country’s pollinator loss appears connected to the growing popularity of neonicotinoid-based insecticides. Will this change the government’s stance on these controversial pest control products?

Over the past decade, a fight between environmentalists and the pesticide industry has intensified as research has linked neonicotinoids to bee decline. Individual lab studies have shown that the chemicals can affect bee behavior and may be one source of so-called colony collapse disorder.

The pesticide industry has always fought these claims, maintaining that lab tests use concentrations far higher than what bees are exposed to in the wild. The same group emphasizes that studies can only show a link — not that neonicotinoids are causing bee decline.

Governments across Europe have reacted differently to scientific findings. Some have supported a full EU ban, claiming that the risk to pollinators — and subsequent risk to agriculture as a whole — is too high not to act unilaterally. However, other countries point out that a ban on these insecticides would leave their crops vulnerable, threatening agriculture in another way. In general, farmers have heavily resisted a neonicotinoid ban.

The UK, despite mounting evidence of a potential link, has previously urged Europe to reject a long-term ban on neonicotinoids — a temporary ban remains in place. Government officials have even used emergency measures to allow neonicotinoid use, arguing that until proved otherwise, there is no convincing evidence of a direct impact on bees.

That might be about to change.

A new study, funded by the UK government and published this month in “Nature Communications,” was conducted by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, or CEH, in Oxfordshire, UK. The team used data from a national recording scheme that included 31,818 surveys of bees and other insects across more than 4,000 square kilometers of land.

Analyzing the results between 1994 and 2011, the researchers identified trends in bee populations. Specifically, they zeroed in on species response to the introduction of neonicotinoid spraying on oilseed rape in 2002.

Researchers found that since the pesticide was introduced, there was an average population decline of about seven percent across all bee species. Some bees were impacted more heavily than others, though.

For example, the spined mason bee, found in southern England and Wales, declined by 20 percent.  Some species experienced even as much as a 30 percent loss.

In addition, the study identified an average 13 percent decline in the overall spread of bee populations after 2002.

Pesticide makers have always contended that wide-scale research has never shown a link between neonicotinoid use and bee decline. While this study cannot prove a causal relationship, it does reveal that the bee species that forage in areas containing treated oilseed-rape tended to be hit the hardest.

Researcher Nick Issac offered his perspective on the CEH’s findings: “Our results show that neonicotinoids are harmful to wild bees — we are very confident about that.”

Fellow researcher Richard Pywell added, “This correlative study has provided the first evidence of negative impacts of neonicotinoid use over the long term and at the national scale for many species of wild bee not previously studied.”

In an interesting comment to the BBC, Dr Julian Little of Bayer Crop Science in the UK, a maker of insecticides, suggested that even as this study has statistical strength, it probably points to a combination of factors:

Since most of the oilseed rape grown in the UK was treated with a neonicotinoid seed treatment during the years that this study looked at, we believe its findings would be more correctly headlined that intensive agriculture is causing some issues with pollinators. Whether this is due to the use of insecticides is not clear; a lack of nesting sites and pollen and nectar sources in these areas may also be critical factors.

This nuanced response is noteworthy. In the past, many insecticide manufacturers have simply attempted to brush off smaller studies as having little relevance. This analysis, as wide-ranging as it is, appears to have given at least some voices in the industry a cause to take notice.

Will this change the UK’s stance on neonicotinoids?

Probably not in the short term.

Howeverm European agencies are due to finish their evaluation of the data surrounding neonicotinoids by early in 2017. This research may, therefore, add weight to calls for Europe to keep its moratorium and arguments that the UK should return to a ban — at least until pollinator decline can be addressed.

In the meantime, and at the very least, the UK should investigate neonicotinoid alternatives and their environmental impacts to ensure that there are viable pest management products that are kind to the environment.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Sarah Hill
Sarah Hillabout a year ago

Of course there is a link, they are insects so it will kill them too.

Mark Donner
Mark Donnerabout a year ago

This was known decades ago. it's not "new" research that these corporations are literally killing the planet and are guilty of genocide and global ecocide. But of course pesticide manufacturers being the criminal organizations they are, are going to use every propaganda trick in the book to convince otherwise. The whole gang of GMO/Pesticide/Herbicide mafia have bought the governments, otherwise they would be in prison for life or on death row for their massive crimes.

federico bortoletto
federico babout a year ago

Grazie per l'articolo.

Jen S.
Jen Sabout a year ago

These are dangerous and comprehensive insecticides. The people who oppose the unilateral ban should be handed small paint brushes and made to hand-pollinate an apple tree, an acre of sweet corn or something equally onerous. This is simple: bees pollinate much of what we eat.

Kezia W.
Inez wabout a year ago

A Lot of wonderful folk on here are saying 'stop buying that crap'
well, kind of.... BUT here in the UK, it is the farmers who keep on, relentlessly, petitioning the government to use it, not us lovely plebs (plebs refers to a massive argument between a VERY elitist and posh MP, and the normal folk)

Kezia W.
Inez wabout a year ago

The NFU lead on bee health, Dr Chris Hartfield, said (NFU = National Farmers Union... the ones that hold the UK to ransom a lot of the time)
"this latest Defra research is one of several field studies showing that these harmful effects on bees are not seen under normal field situations. These studies also suggest that laboratory dosing can exaggerate the exposure that bees would experience in ‘real-life’ field situations.
We need to be careful not to get drawn into a game of ‘research study top-trumps’.
The European Commission has decided to manage the risks identified by EFSA around neonicotinoids and bees by banning the use of these insecticides. The Defra study shows that this precautionary approach by the Commission is neither proportionate nor justified by the current evidence we have available."

As usual, these idiots go against PROVEN Science

Kezia W.
Inez wabout a year ago

The UK...
We have all this info and yet the government put their fingers in their ears and sing 'la la la, we can't hear you'
w w w [dot] bbc [dot] co [dot] uk/news/science-environment-33641646
"The government has temporarily lifted a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides in certain parts of the country.
An EU-wide moratorium was put in place after some studies showed the pesticide caused significant harm to bees.
But following a second emergency application by the National Farmers Union, two neonicotinoid pesticides can now be used for 120 days on about 5% of England's oilseed rape crop.
Environmental and wildlife groups have called the decision "scandalous"."

The UK government folks...

Kezia W.
Inez wabout a year ago

and will we ban them?
Hell no
Our environmental (???!!!) minister just gives out special licenses to use them instead, to get around the European ban on them, the ban in which ONLY the UK voted against....
We call Defra (department of environment, food and rural affairs) DEATHRA over here as they LOVE to kill...

Nathan D.
Nathan Dabout a year ago

It doesn't take a genius to realize that insecticides kill insects.

Margie Fabout a year ago

Thank you