Neonicotinoid pesticides banned, bees saved, phew! But why?

A few days ago the EU decided to ban the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. This is great news for bees, populations of which have been declining over the last decade or so. Our glorious government was against the ban, they seemingly don’t care about bees and their unlikely green agenda is no more.

Protesting for an EU neonicotinoid pesticides ban
source: Independent

Of course, declining bee numbers in the UK has serious implications as they play a vital ecological role – pollination. If we run out of bees, we will end up with less indigenous plants, it’s fairly straightforward. So why were the government against the ban?

According to the Guardian the ministers against the ban were using the arguments of Prof Ian Boyd, the chief scientific adviser to environment secretary Owen Paterson. The crux of the matter lies in methodology of the science presented as evidence. Boyd compared the results of three major studies condemning  neonicotinoid pesticides with five others that found no discernible issue with these pesticides.

Save the bees
source: Green Grandma

Boyd complains about the dose used in the condemning studies while citing the five studies supporting delaying a ban at least three of which have dubious issues themselves. Importantly, only three of these are published and in lower value Journals than the three on the other side of the argument. The impact factor of a Journal is used to give a ranking to a particular publication. The three ban supporting studies have a much higher impact factor than those Boyd cites, thereby giving them greater value. The Guardian writer, Damian Carrington says

the balance of quality research points clearly to unacceptable harm, the same conclusion reached by the independent experts at the European Food Safety Agency

Boyd also complains about the lack of research in the 20 years since neonicotinoid pesticides came into use. I’m not sure that is a reason to hold off a ban though. He also mentions the cost-benefit analysis which seems to be behind the governments opposition to the ban. However, while Boyd insists they don’t have the full data required to analyse effectively the government believes a ban will be too costly. Clearly the Conservative and Lib Dem junta is not as green as they would like us to believe! That was tough to link to….

But what about the science in favour of a neonicotinoid pesticides ban?

The New Scientist as a great article from a leading bee scientist (Dave Goulson) who approves the ban. The LD50 – dose that kills half the test subjects (bees) – is about 4 billionths of a gram. A gram would be sufficient to destroy “250 million honeybees, or roughly 25 metric tonnes of bee”! Powerful stuff. He provides the following reasons, from findings in peer-reviewed published studies, in favour of the neonicotinoid pesticides ban

  • many years of lab tests failed to address the possibility of harm rather than death to bees in the wild
  • neonicotinoid contaminated bees nests produced fewer Queen bees
  • reduced egg laying
  • “exposure to levels of neonicotinoids commonly found in crops profoundly damages colony success”

These are the studies Boyd dislikes, probably because they oppose the governments view. It seems that the LD50 test is the industry standard test BUT it only tests for death and not harm. This needs to be taken into account. A commenter points out that the LD50 test is designed to push through pesticide approval rather than test for safety! This seems a reasonable assertion considering the lack of testing for harm.

Further neonicotinoid implications

Goulson reveals further concerns about the harm to the environment these neonicotinoid pesticides pose. He cites evidence that

  • chemicals in neonicotinoid pesticides persist in soils for a long time AND accumulate over time
  • they also get into surrounding vegetation, ponds and streams, harming the environment as a result
  • neonicotinoids do NOT boost yields, US studies on soya production indicate this failing

A further implications that Goulson highlights is

Given that farmers get most of their technical advice from pesticide companies, it is reasonable to suppose that a good proportion of UK pesticide use may be unnecessary

Bees are very important for plants
source: Telegraph

This is damning, how can farmers make an informed decision on any type of pesticide if they only hear the manufacturers story? These companies are hardly going to provide a balanced view. In fact, what they do is lobby hard to influence decision making at the highest level, they even had a good lobbying go at the death with this ban. While ultimately their efforts failed in this instance, it seems to have impacted our government as the article shows.

In a letter released to the Observer under freedom of information rules, the environment secretary, Owen Paterson, told the chemicals company Syngenta last week that he was “extremely disappointed” by the European commission’s proposed ban. He said that “the UK has been very active” in opposing it and “our efforts will continue and intensify in the coming days“.


Publicly, ministers have expressed concern for bees, with David Cameron saying: “If we do not look after our bee populations, very serious consequences will follow.”

Seems to be a little conflict in the governments green agenda. On one hand the Environment Minister is putting pressure on the EU opposing the neonicotinoid pesticides ban while the PM says bees should be save. Hedging their bets, somewhat.

At least the bees and the larger environment will benefit from the neonicotinoid pesticides ban! Despite our governments efforts.

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