To bee or not to bee
PUBLISHED: 10:39 03 July 2013 | UPDATED: 10:40 03 July 2013
Nick Mann lives outside Bruton, where he runs Habitat Aid.
Habitat Aid promotes and sells British native trees, plants and aquatic plants, wildflower seeds and heritage fruit trees, which it sources
through a community of small specialist UK nurseries and growers.
It has close links to a number of UK conservation charities, to whom it donates half its profits from online sales.
Here he talks about one of nature’s wonders and the problems it faces.
Bees have hit the headlines this year as the row about certain pesticides
reached a head.
The European parliament has decided on a two-year moratorium on them, despite the UK voting against the ban with seven other countries.
There have been heated arguments inside Britain too.
Although the Government’s official view was supported by the agrichemical and agricultural lobbies, Parliament’s own Environmental Audit Committee disagreed.
Conservation experts’ opinion is split too, and tempers have frayed.
So what’s going on?
First of all, which bees are we talking about? Although we have only one type of Honeybee, it’s this bee which tends to get all the attention. That’s because it produces a commercial crop – honey.
It has great value as a pollinator for fruit and vegetables.
Somerset has always been a strong beekeeping county as it is associated with cider orchards.
As for the other bees, we know a certain amount about the 24 species of Bumblebee in the UK but very little about the solitary bees.
That’s the first lesson from the argument – we don’t know much about what is going on outside our own back doors.
We started to use neonics in the 1980s. They were heralded as more environmentally friendly pesticides as they’re systemic, rather than needing to be sprayed regularly.
In the UK, they’re generally commercially used in seed coatings.
Neonics have long residual lives and are very effective, which means they can be used in much smaller amounts than other pesticides.
because they’re systemic their effects build up over time, which means Honeybees, with their permanent colonies, may be particularly susceptible to them.
When the bees forage on treated plants they pick up pesticide residues, which then build up in the wax of their colonies.
These residues seem to affect the bees’ ability to navigate and forage effectively, although on their own they are sub-lethal.
How they affect honeybee larvae, or bumblebees or solitary bees, or other
insects like butterflies, we really have no idea.
Such work as has been done suggest they may be
creating problems for them too.
Although neonics are much more toxic to insects than other animals, recent studies have also suggested they may be creating problems for birds and amphibians
Most bee scientists I know think that neonics are only part of one of the problems facing honeybees.
If you talk to beekeepers in Somerset they will tell you how bad the past couple of years have been.
I don’t think I know anyone who hasn’t lost at least one colony, and sometimes losses have been over 50 per cent.
This is probably nothing at all to do with neonics, and more likely to be weather related.
Last year’s dreadful summer, for example, combined with the extended cold winter has meant that many colonies have starved. Poor beekeeping hasn’t helped too, in some cases, with beekeepers wrestling with really difficult conditions.
One or both of these two factors can combine with disease as well, particularly the varroa mite, a nasty imported honeybee parasite.
Disease and weather have taken their toll of honeybee populations in the past – this is nothing new.
Other bees will have suffered from the weather too, and in the longer term they are also vulnerable to habitat loss.
Bees need varied and season long forage, which they’re no longer finding, even in the
kind of countryside we have in Somerset.
They need more flowers, and the right sort of flowers.
Honeybee colony losses in the US have been particularly severe, partly because of this.
Left to their own devices bees forage from as many different plants as they can; like us, they need a balanced diet, of nectar and pollen.
Reliance on a single food source seems to weaken them, as does the cocktail of pesticides they’re exposed to.
Combinations of chemicals can be much more damaging than the sum of their parts.
This is the second lesson from this story. Our current regulatory system is weak. The effects of these chemicals on honeybees was said to be “sub-lethal” so they were licensed for use.
They might be sub-lethal, but we have no idea what their effect might be in combination with other factors.
The third moral from this tale is that nature is complicated and human nature isn’t. There has been a lot of single issue campaigning on neonics, accusing the agrichemical companies of single-handedly
destroying bee populations across the world.
If only it were that simple; bee populations won’t suddenly recover now we have banned a type of pesticide.
We also have to worry about what will
replace them – farmers can’t be expected to suddenly all go organic.
Are there any other public spaces around you that could have a wildflower meadow area, like a churchyard?
There’s a great organisation called Caring for God’s Acre which can help. You could also join the Bumblebee Conservation Trust or Buglife, two small charities which do a great job helping and informing on all things bee related.