In Britain we are a touch more modest in our approach. Our biggest fields are only two or three miles long. If they are sown with wheat there will be nothing for bees to live off. If the crop is rapeseed then the bees will have a bonanza for a couple of weeks and then nothing. A diet of only one type of pollen and nectar is not enough to keep bees alive. They need variety. With reducing numbers of hedges and fewer meadows this is proving harder and harder to find. To such an extent that scientists have shown that bees now do better in urban environments than they do in the countryside.
Even where the bees manage to find a varied diet they are suffering as a result of the spread of diseases and parasites resulting from industrialised agriculture. The varroa mite only arrived in the UK in 1992. Every bee keeper in the country now has a problem with it. It is not nice to open up your hive, as I did last summer, and spot a mite clinging to one of your bees and know that it is sucking the life out of it and spreading viruses.
In this context the last thing our bees need is yet another threat. That is, however, what is happening. It has proved very hard to devise a chemical that will kill insects but not kill bees. DDT, for example, killed helpful insects just as often as it did damaging ones and its continued use in China has wiped out so many bees that in parts of the country fruit trees have to be pollinated by hand. So when a new type of chemical came on the scene which could be coated onto the seed and penetrate the whole plant many people were at first very pleased to see it introduced. At least this chemical would only exist within the plant and not get into the air around it.
Unfortunately it didn't turn out to be that easy. Neonicitinoids are known to kill bees at high enough concentrations. The chemical companies therefore conducted careful trials to demonstrate that the dose bees would receive in the wild would never reach a high enough level to kill them. What they didn't research properly was the impact of these chemicals on soil organisms or on the bees' navigation systems. When neonicitinoids came into wide use beekeepers in many parts of the world discovered that their older bees, the foragers, flew off to look for food but never came back. Many hives were found to have healthy queens, adequate brood, and some young bees but their older bees had gone. This new problem called Colony Collapse Disorder resulted in the eventual starvation and death of all the bees in the hive that the foragers had deserted.
When this problem was discovered the chemical companies took immediate action. They launched a propaganda campaign. This asserts that neonicitinoids cannot be to blame for Colony Collapse Disorder because the concentrations that exist in the field are not high enough to kill the bees. Fortunately this didn't fool EU decision makers and a two year ban was put in place in January 2013. Unfortunately it did fool the UK government who were against the ban. They failed to understand that the problem is not that neonics kills bees outright when applied properly. It is that they interfere with the bees' navigation systems so the foragers don't come home. They also weaken the queen's pheromones which are what she uses to make sure that her daughters work for the collective. This is just as fatal to a colony but the impact is erratic. It won't always happen. It will depend on quantity of chemicals consumed, time of year, strength of the hive, wind conditions, and a whole series of other factors. This means that the chemical companies can quite rightly state that if their product used in the right concentrations then it cannot easily be proved to be the direct cause of Colony Collapse Disorder.
Faced with the problem of industrialised agriculture and dangerous new insecticides the UK government's response has been to introduce a National Pollinator Strategy. This enables them to say that they have done something. Unfortunately it contains not a single practical measure to actually make anyone do anything. It doesn't control the import of bees. It doesn't require any changes to agricultural practices. It doesn't provide any funds for independent research into Colony Collapse Disorder or varroa control. Instead it gives the job of carrying out research on whether neonicitinoids are safe or not to the chemical companies. We might be forgiven for predicting the outcome in advance and for questioning the reliability of a scientific method which places the mice in charge of researching who should be allowed to eat the cheese.
The moratorium on the use of neonicitinoids will expire at the end of 2015. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs can be relied on to continue to advise the Government to oppose the continuation of the ban and to support the chemical companies. Those of us who care about the environment need to continue to campaign for measures such as:
* a ban on neonicitinoids
* a ban on the import of honeybees and bumblebees
* financial support for farmers to diversify the crops they grow
* financial support for farmers to maintain hedgerows and keep meadows
* a requirement on supermarkets to increase their use of locally sourced food
The only party at the elections which will make a difference on these issues is the Green Party. The number of votes that the Green Party attracts will have a real impact on the behaviour of the British Government. A handful of Green votes and whoever is elected is highly likely to end up listening to the chemical companies and big agriculture. A large number of votes for the Green Party and we might actually get some changes that will prove of real long term benefit to our farmers, our consumers and to our bees. Please help the countryside and vote Green at the next election.