Is the UK Breaking International Law That Harms Bees?
Where would humanity be without the hard work of busy bees pollinating the food crops we need to eat for nutrition? Bees, in addition to other pollinators, play essential roles in ensuring we all have enough food to eat. Many plants cannot self-pollinate, so they rely on pollinators like bees to survive. Other animals also depend on bees for food, so the value of bees far exceeds what we humans get from them.
Bees are responsible for types of food we take for granted every day, like apples, strawberries, and broccoli. In fact, insects pollinate a whopping one-third of humanity’s foods.
For varied reasons, but mainly due to pests and poisonous agricultural pesticides, bees have been in decline for quite a while. Habitat loss is another common reason, where people mow down wildflower meadows and hedges for the sake of progress, to build structures or roads.
Shock and angry disbelief were expressed last month when thiamethoxam, the banned bee-killing pesticide, was granted ‘emergency’ use on sugar beet by UK Environmental Secretary, George Eustice, according to EuroNews. Despite government experts stating that this chemical poses an unacceptable risk to honeybees and other pollinators. The toxic pesticide controls virus-carrying aphid bugs that suck sap from plants.
Wildlife Trusts lawyers are launching a legal challenge for the government to prove their decision is lawful. The prospect that bee-killing pesticides may be the new norm at 'certain times' is disturbing. Why does the government appear to not be listening to its own experts?
This toxic product is harmful to humans, pollinators, and rivers. Wildlife Trusts wants to know what plans the government has for avoiding its use. So far, there has been no coherent response from government.
This unrelated 1:21-minute video by Green Peace looks at how toxic neonicotinoids kill bees:
Thiamethoxam is one of the neonicotinoid pesticides (known as neonics). These chemicals are used around the world. In 2018, the most toxic, including thiamethoxam, were banned from all outdoor use in the EU and UK, due to overwhelming evidence of the harm they cause bees and other pollinators.
When poisoned by these chemicals, bees often exhibit twitching or paralysis of flight muscles. There is a failure in the homing behavior of foragers that results in less available food for the colony. A single exposure significantly damages the ability of future generations of bees to reproduce.
Environmental contamination is also widespread and common. Neonics leach into the soil and contaminate groundwater and affect aquatic ecosystems. Their residues were found in 75% of analyzed global honey samples in 2017.
Despite all this, widespread use continues because EU member states can grant ‘emergency derogation,’ allowing temporary use if such a measure appears necessary due to danger from a virus that cannot be contained by other reasonable solutions.
England grows sugar beet that supplies over half the sugar consumed in the UK. Vast acreage of prime agricultural land is set aside to satisfy the insatiable demand for sugar, but climate change is creating problems. Warmer winters fail to kill the virus-carrying aphids found on the crop.
Therefore, British Sugar exerts ongoing pressure to allow thiamethoxam to be used in certain circumstances to control aphids. Last year, although emergency authorization was granted, it was not implemented due to cold weather killing the aphids to such a degree that only 2% of the crop was left infected.
This winter is much warmer, so when scientific modelling is published on 1 March 2022, projected levels of the virus could be close to the threshold that allows ‘emergency’ use of thiamethoxam to control aphids, by ‘seed-dressing’ sugar beet.
Only about 5% of the pesticide reaches the crop when this method is used. The rest accumulates in the soil and can reach higher and more persistent levels of contamination than in pollen and nectar.
Many native and solitary bee species make nests underground, which can lead to exposure for them and for other organisms. The poison is also absorbed by wildflower and hedgerow plant roots that bees visit.
The Environment Act recently became law in the UK. Are bees in the UK safe? Government pledged that by 2030 species decline would be halted. But much more must be done to ensure nature is not at a disadvantage due to profit, according to Nick Mole, Pesticide Action Network UK Policy Officer.
Choosing sugar beet varieties that resist disease would help. The sugar industry should support grower sustainability and invest some of its hefty profits to help growers develop strategies that do not require bee-toxic neonicotinoids.
If the UK government is truly committed to stopping biodiversity loss, they should stop approving these derogations.
Half of all insects have been lost since 1970. In the UK, moths and butterflies are under threat. Wild bees are now gone from one out of every four places they were found in 1980.
Two British bumblebee species went extinct, and eight species are endangered with a similar situation across Europe. The European Red List for Bees shows almost 1 in 10 wild bee species faces extinction.
Natural pest control, good husbandry, and use of resistant varieties can help ensure sugar beet can be grown without threatening bees, and many farmers in the EU already know this to be true.
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