Comment: How pesticides are killing the British bee

By Sandra Bell

Last week, the government was subjected to stinging criticism by an influential committee of MPs over its "extraordinarily complacent approach" to the growing plight of our declining bee populations and failure to "even come up with a convincing plan to encourage bee-friendly farming in the UK."

The highly critical report – Pollinators and Pesticides – by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), hit the nail on the head. It was the latest in a growing list of studies that have painted a worrying picture about the threats our bees and other pollinators face and the need for urgent action to tackle them.??

While honeybees often grab the attention, there are actually an amazing 267 bee species in the UK, though many are suffering dramatic declines.

Forty-seven species are officially listed as vulnerable or endangered and two bumblebee species have already been lost. It is our wild bees that do most of the crop pollination; they cannot simply be replaced by managed honeybee colonies. Some bees have specialised jobs: mason bees improve the quality of our apples, while tomatoes need to be buzz pollinated by larger-bodied bumblebees.

But bees do more than help feed us. They also pollinate many of the plants that other species depend on for food and shelter such as hawthorn hedges. As the EAC points out, "farmers and environmentalists have a shared interest in conserving pollinators".

Pesticides have been firmly in the spotlight in recent months after publication of a report by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) linking three neonicotinoid insecticides (imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin) to bee decline.

Following a comprehensive review of the evidence, EFSA concluded that the chemicals posed a "high acute risk" to honey bees when used on crops attractive to bees, including oilseed rape, grown in large quantities in the UK. The study prompted the European Commission to propose a two-year restriction on these chemicals, but the UK government has so far refused to back a ban, claiming more evidence is still needed.

But government reluctance to act is strongly opposed by the cross-party group of MPs on the EAC. They unanimously urged ministers to invoke the precautionary principle and introduce a moratorium on these neonicotinoid pesticides "on our farms and in our parks and gardens to give British bees a fighting chance of recovery".

Interestingly, where ministers have dithered, forward-thinking firms have led. The EAC rightly congratulated leading UK home and garden retailers, including B&Q, Homebase and Wyevale who, following successful campaigning by Friends of the Earth, voluntarily removed neonicotonids linked to bee decline from their shelves.

In fact, MPs were highly critical of the whole government approach to pesticides. The recently published National Pesticides Action Plan should be ripped up, they said, and replaced with one that promotes pesticide reduction across the board.??This is spot on; ministers must do more to help farmers get off the chemical treadmill. The only viable future for farming is one where the natural systems we depend on for our food production are properly protected. Without bees, it has been estimated that it would cost UK farmers £1.8 billion to hand-pollinate key crops.??But pesticides are not the only issue affecting bees. Habitat loss, for example, is also a major factor which must be urgently addressed.

Since the 1930s, 97% of our wildflower meadows have been lost. Protecting what is left must be a priority, along with the creation of new bee-friendly sites. This was also recognised by the EAC which urged the government to use the common agricultural policy to help farmers switch to bee-friendly farming practices, such as growing a diversity of flowering crops and planting more nectar-rich wildflowers on field margins.

We also need to look at how our towns and cities are planned and managed to prevent insensitive developments from destroying important habitats and to promote good quality development that creates new natural spaces for our pollinators.

In 2012, Friends of the Earth launched its Bee Cause campaign to fight for the better protection of all our bees through a national bee action plan.

The campaign already has the backing of more than a quarter of MPs from across the political spectrum as well as organisations such as the Women’s Institute, B&Q and the Co-Op as well as tens of thousands of individuals. Just this week, the Welsh government published its extremely encouraging draft Pollinator Action Plan in response to our Bee Cause campaign in Wales.

The ball is now back in the government's court. Ministers are looking increasingly isolated on this issue and there is growing pressure for them to act on all the factors affecting the health of our bees.

Doing nothing is not an option. Ministers must support restrictions on neonicotinoid chemicals linked to bee deaths and agree to a bee action plan to help safeguard the long-term future of all our bees.

Sandra Bell is a campaigner in the nature and ecosystems team at Friends of the Earth, currently working on The Bee Cause campaign. She previously worked in Friends of the Earth's food and farming campaign, covering a range of issues including pesticides, local food and supermarket power.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.