What’s the story?
The UK government recently released a statement announcing the decision to issue “with strict conditions” emergency authorisation to use a product containing a neonicotinoid, in order to treat sugar beet seed. The UK government had previously banned the use of the pesticide in 2018.
What are neonicotinoids?
According to Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) neonicotinoids (neonics) are a relatively new type of “systemic pesticides” that bees are particularly vulnerable to, because of their genetic makeup.
The problem with systemic pesticides is that once they have coated the seeds of a plant, every part of that plant’s tissue will take up the toxin as it grows, which means the harmful effects can still be very much prevalent even a long time after the plant has been treated. Pesticides can also be carried in the air, water and via the soil and nearby hedges.
How do neonicotinoids affect bees?
Neonics are acutely toxic to bees if they come into direct contact with them; but they also have other indirect harmful effects:
- The presence of neonics in pollen and nectar can impair pollinator health, including disruption to foraging behaviour, homing ability, communication and larval development.
- Exposure at low doses can negatively effect the immune system of bees, which means they are more more prone to parasites and disease infections.
- Bee larvae is at risk from neonic breakdown products, which last longer and are more toxic than the pesticide in its original form.
Research into the effects of these pesticides on pollinators is still ongoing and new harmful effects are discovered all the time.
A new study published in nature.com’s scientific reports and reported in The Conversation, details the effect of neonicotinoids on the body clock and sleep patterns of flies and bumblebees, finding that a neonicotinoid pesticide called imidacloprid turns night into day for bees, meaning the effected bees were more likely to forage at nighttime and sleep in the daytime.
This results in less pollination, because flowers close at night, it’s too dark for bees to fly and – just like humans on a run of night shifts – the bees end up being more sluggish overall, attempting far fewer foraging trips than normal. If you consider bees need to fly about 55,000 miles just to make one pound of honey, being sluggish isn’t particularly good for bees-ness. Sorry, that pun was terrible.
What does this mean for the environment?
It’s not just about the honey, honey – although, one bee hive produces about 11kg of honey during a season! Pollinators, such as bees, are vital to the biodiversity of the planet. By travelling between plants carrying pollen on their bodies, pollinators fertilise different species, which in turn enables those species to produce things that we eat, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, oils and fibres – in fact, somewhere between 75%-95% of all flowering plants on earth need help with pollination. Plants that are also responsible for preventing soil erosion, as well as absorbing carbon, not to mention the fact that a falling population of insects also results in the loss of birds and other animals who feed on them. Keeping pollinator numbers healthy has a massive positive impact on our own livelihoods and food sources.
Here are some fun facts about the importance of having healthy pollinators buzzing around:
- One out of every three bites of food you eat is there because of pollinators.
- Insect pollination is worth a huge £690 million to UK crops each year. It would cost the UK at least £1.8bn a year to employ people to do the work of these pollinators, yet bees do it for free!
- There are around 75% more wild bees on organic farms, because organic farmers use fewer pesticides, and have a higher amount of bee-friendly habitats, like wildflower margins.
Why has the UK government reversed the ban on neonicotinoid insecticides?
According to the statement from the government released on 8 January 2021, this is an emergency authorisation for the short-term use of the pesticide, and may only be granted if certain requirements are met, such as “a danger which cannot be contained by any other reasonable means”, and that the “use of the product will be limited and controlled” and “there are special circumstances”.
The statement assesses the risks to bees of using neonicotinoid on sugar beet, which is a non-flowering crop, as ‘acceptable’; however, it also acknowledges that risks could be posed to bees from flowering weeds in and around the sugar beet, and that the pesticide could travel in the soil. Conditions to the use of neonicotinoid include ensuring no flowering crops are planted as following crops for a period of at least 22 months, with an extended period of exclusion for oilseed rape of 32 months.
However, even with these conditions, the reintroduction of neonicotinoids in the UK comes without any new evidence of their safety, going against the 2018 decision to prohibit them, when the then environment secretary, Michael Gove, promised the government would maintain the ban, unless scientific evidence changed.
Environmental and wildlife groups are worried that the impact of the pesticide’s use will be much wider than outlined in the government’s statement as ‘acceptable’ risk, noting the toxin has the ability to be absorbed into the soil where it kills wildflowers (directly impacting bees and other pollinators); as well as being washed into waterways, where it can harm thousands of other species.
I want to take action, what can I do?
At Earth Collective, we focus on positive living, positive brands and positive news for the planet. But sometimes the positive that comes out of negative news is what we can do to take action. So, we’ve curated a list of things you can do to help save the bees, today and beyond.
1. Sign this petition
With almost 250,000 signatures at the time of writing this article, this petition is aiming to get to 300,000, to show the government that British people care abut bees and the environment, and to ask them to reconsider the ban reversal. After 100,000 signatures, petitions are considered for debate in Parliament, but the more signatures the better – after all, the government wants your votes too!
2. Write to your local MP
The British Parliament works on a constituency basis, which means means your MP represents one area and everyone living in that area. So that means that, regardless of who you voted for in the last election, the MP that represents the area where you live has a duty to represent your point of view, and respond to your communications, even if they don’t agree with what you’re saying or asking.
All MPs can table written questions with the most relevant Government Minister, even if they don’t agree with what the letter is asking. If an MP receives an influx of letters about one particular issue, that signals to them it’s an important issue for people in their constituency and they will be more influenced to act.
To write a good letter to your MP, be respectful, try to be neutral and not argumentative or combative, present facts about the issue you have concerns about, and make the impacts of your concern relevant to your local area and the people who live there. It can also be a good idea to do some research on your MP and what’s important to them, then you can tailor your letter in a way that really appeals to their interests.
3. Save the bees that live near you or visit your home
At a grassroots level (pun intended!), there are plenty of things you can do in your own backyard and local area to help keep bees healthy and assist the ones who are struggling. Here are some simple ideas to get you started.
Revive a tired bee with sugar water
According to the creators of The Bee Revival Kit ‘Beevive‘, there is a lot of conflicting information out there about how to revive a tired bee. Offering a tired bee honey or leaving sugar water out 24 hours a day are both big no-nos to bee revival. Instead, Beevive suggests the following approach:
- A good bee doctor will check the bees symptoms first – are they wet? If so, pop them in the sun to warm up. But make sure they are really exhausted and not just resting or, in fact, naturally dying.
- Once you are sure this bee needs your assistance, protect yourself by using your sleeve or a nearby leaf and be gentle when you pick the bee up.
- If you can find a flower, pop the bee there. Something with high-nectar and pollen work best as they contain lots of nutrients that the bee needs.
- Give the bee time there to rest, it could be 30 minutes before she takes a drink.
- If the flower method fails, give sugar water on a small container or spoon, offering two tablespoons of granulated white sugar to one tablespoon of water. Be patient again and don’t force the bee to take the water, she will if she needs it.
The clever folks at Beevive have even created a Bee Revival Keyring, that’s so small you can take it with you wherever you take your keys! The stylish aluminium container has inside it a little refillable bottle, that contains an ambrosia® bee food syrup to feed a bee in need.
Rewild your outdoor space
When we think of rewilding, we often think of large open spaces, or farm land, or nature reserves. But rewilding can happen in your own backyard, on your balcony, or even in a hanging basket! Rewilding is an excellent way to rebuild lost habitats for bees and other pollinators.
Here are some simple ways you can re-wild your own outdoor space:
- Plant native wildflowers or flowing shrubs. If you don’t have a garden or outdoor space, you can plant wildflowers in tubs or pots on your balcony, or in a hanging basket.
- Mow the lawn less frequently and let the wild flowers grow. Pollen and nectar from dandelions is especially accessible to bees, plus their beautiful yellow colour will brighten up your garden. A lovely look, if you have the space, is to mow ‘pathways’ through your lawn and let the grass grow long around them, which also makes for a fun experience for children, and dogs!
- Add a small water feature. Even something the size of a large dinner plate will be enough to attract birds and insects.
- Stay away from chemicals, including fertilisers, weed killers, slug pellets and pesticides. Look for organic options instead – like coffee grounds to deter slugs.
Have you got a positive news story you’d like us to cover? Or is there something negative in the current affairs agenda that you’d like us to look at finding solutions for? We’d love to hear from you! Email your thoughts and suggestions to our Editor Charli at email@example.com.