By Tony Whitbread
I’m writing this blog just as summer has finally arrived, and the warm, still air in parts of Sussex is thick with the sickly-sweet fragrance of oilseed rape in full bloom. Our bees love oil-seed rape and are important pollinators of this increasingly widespread crop.
We also know that oilseed rape productivity is hugely increased by visits from bees of all types – bumblebees, honeybees and solitary bees. The crop is processed to produce high-protein animal feed, oil for culinary use and for biofuel. So through their pollinating activity, bees are performing an economically valuable service – an ecosystem service, since they’re part of the natural environment.
This is a particularly important service in Sussex where, at the last available count, 10% of arable farmland was growing oilseed rape. The total area of this crop across England is in the region of 700,000 hectares – an area just under twice the size of Sussex.
Unfortunately flea beetles, a group of tiny insects, are also attracted to oilseed rape plants and are treated as a serious pest. In response, a family of pesticides called ‘neonicotinoids’ have been used to control flea beetles in a range of crops including oilseed rape. These are nicotine-like insecticides that are much less toxic to birds and mammals than the organophosphates which did so much damage to wildlife last century. But, worryingly they seem to be causing devastating problems for bees.
A suite of studies examining the disturbing recent declines in bee populations in North America and Europe made links between lethal and sublethal effects on bees visiting oilseed rape fields and the use of ‘neonics’. This was backed up by the findings of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that neonics posed a threat to bee health. So in response, in 2013 the EU Member States agreed to place a restriction on the use of three neonicotinoid products across the European Union on crops attractive to bees – including oilseed rape.
The ban was contentious. The pesticide producers lobbied hard to avoid the decision; and crucially the UK government voted against it! The temporary ban intended to provide breathing space so more evidence could be obtained to assess whether and how neonics could be used without detriment to bees, reflecting EFSA’s considered view that “Given the importance of bees in the ecosystem and the food chain and given the multiple services they provide to humans, their protection is essential.”
This is a clear case of applying the ‘precautionary principle’ which is fundamental building block in the EU’s approach to environmental protection. The principle aims to strike a balance between “… the freedom and rights of individuals, industry and organisations, with the need to reduce the risks of adverse effects to the environment, human, animal and plant health.”
The precautionary principle is a risk management tool which helps decision-makers to make informed choices over actions which may have a negative impact on the environment. The EU’s approach to the use of neonicotinoid pesticides in circumstances where bees could be placed at risk is precautionary. Given that the UK government voted against the ban, I feel it is safe to say that without the EU restrictions, UK bees would be more exposed and more at risk than they are currently to neonicotinoids.