In 2018, the European Union banned three of the most commonly used neonicotinoid pesticides for outdoor agricultural use. The decision came after multiple scientific studies proved their severe detrimental impact on pollinators. Effects from neonicotinoids include reduced immune function, reduced foraging capabilities, and impaired cognition in bees, even in the tiny quantities used in agriculture. Just a teaspoon (5g) of these chemicals in their raw form would be enough to kill 1¼ billion honeybees. These are some serious chemicals, and the decision to ban them in 2018 was fully supported by the UK government.
Although neonicotinoids were banned for their effects on pollinators, these chemicals can be lethal to all insects. They have been shown to persist in the environment, with traces of them being identified in soils up to 5 years after application. This can lead to the deaths of millions of organisms, leaving predators like hedgehogs and birds with less to eat, and potentially causing a collapse of the food web. As a result of all this evidence, the European Food Standards Agency concluded that there was no safe use for these chemicals.
However, this year, the UK government has approved neonicotinoids for emergency use as a seed treatment on sugar beet in England. This involves coating sugar beet seeds in pesticide before they are planted. So why are the government claiming that the use of neonicotinoids is necessary in 2021?
Well, sugar beet yields have been impacted by beet yellows, a virus transmitted by aphids. Since the ban on neonicotinoids in 2018, the infection rate of beet yellows has increased year on year. Aphid populations have been proliferating due to mild winters, with no agrochemicals to solve the problem. The government argue that, because sugar beet does not flower and will not attract pollinators, the risk from neonicotinoids is acceptable.
At first, it seems like a good argument. Bees won’t feed on the non-flowering sugar beet, so it isn’t an issue, right? Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.
Although the government are only authorising the use of neonicotinoids in a ‘limited and controlled’ way, the risk to wildlife remains incredibly high. Even if we remove bees from the equation, there are birds, small mammals, fish, and other invertebrates in the soil and water that will inevitably suffer the effects of these dangerous chemicals running off into their habitats.
Additionally, although sugar beet doesn’t flower, the flowering plants (eg. wildflowers, hedgerows) around the sugar beet fields may contain traces of harmful pesticide. The government proposes to counter this by using herbicide (weed killer) on them. However, not only does this remove a vital food source for many species (including bees!), but it adds yet more harmful chemicals into the ecosystem.
Finally, this is the start of a vicious cycle. The mild winters we have been experiencing are symptoms of climate change, and there’s one thing we know for certain about climate change: it isn’t going away anytime soon! Winters will continue to get warmer, resulting in the need for more and more pesticides to combat growing pest problems. Inevitably, this won't be the last time neonicotinoids are authorised for emergency use.
It took decades of scientific research to get these pesticides banned, and yet, they are now being used once more to save a crop with no nutritional value. Climate change is something we’re going to have to learn to live with, and throwing harmful chemicals at the problem isn’t going to solve it. If we are going to get serious about our biodiversity crisis, we need to commit. Our first step is ensuring that these toxic chemicals will never enter our ecosystems again.
Thomas R Oliver is a PhD researcher at Bangor University and Rothamsted Research currently looking at how new pesticides effect bumblebee behaviour. He previously worked with us on a number of our London based rooftop hives before studying for his Master’s degree at Royal Holloway University. When not conducting research he can be found producing infographics for his social media accounts.