Penny Thoughts

Tag: agriculture

Pesticides Wiping The Memories of Our Bees

This year, evidence has mounted supporting the idea that neonicotinoid pesticides are contributing to the dramatic falls in bee populations over the last few decades. I have already written two posts regarding this matter. If you are interested feel free to give them a quick read as I won’t be going over too much of the stuff I included. The first can be f0und here and delves into what effects neonicotinoids are having on bees and other pollinating insects. The second summarises the results of the EU vote against the ban of these pesticides and can be found here.

The proposed ban of neonicotinoids was rejected when put forward to the European Commission on the 15th March this year. One of the main arguments presented by opposers of the ban, including the UK environmental secretary, Owen Paterson, was that more data and research was required supporting the idea that neonicotinoids are negatively impacting bees, before a ban could be properly considered.

There has been a lot of response to this, including  a recent evaluation by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). This report has suggested that neonicotinoids do not pose a serious threat to bees in a natural, real life setting. One of their main arguments is that the majority of the research that has been carried out has been done so in a lab based environment. They believe that the levels of neonicotinoids that most bees are exposed to in the wild are not comparable to those used in the lab based research and that the results are therefore over estimations.

This is a major punch in the face for supporters of the ban and researchers trying to investigate into this topic. With DEFRA being such a big name, it is likely that many people will be swayed due to this report. However, I have not.

This is a little irritating to me. Yes, a lot of the research was carried out in lab based environments, but I do not feel that this fact alone is enough to render these findings invalid. The huge majority of scientific work takes place in the most part in labs. Does this mean that all lab based work should be dismissed? NO.

The neonicotinoids are affecting bees and other pollinating insects in detrimental ways, whether that be in the lab or the field. It is likely that the lab setting may intensify these effects, but bees are being affected in the real world. Numbers are falling and something is causing that.

I found this very recent study published yesterday in Nature. This study is something different, it has lab AND field based experimentation. The researchers have shown that neonicotinoids actually impair the memory of bees which is impacting their ability to successfully forage and therefore pollinate the world’s plants. The study was led by Mary Palmer and her team and they state that it is known that neonicotinoids do impact bees, but that there is little empirical evidence to explain how and this needs to improve.

They successfully demonstrate how 2 neonicotinoids (imidacloprid and clothianidin) directly affect neuronal transmission within the nicotinic receptors in the brains of honey bees. They looked at the effects of neonicotinoids in bee Kenyon cells (KCs). KCs are neurons found in the brains of arthropods, including incsects. These KCs play an important role in learning and memory, particularly when it comes to smells.

The research team looked at the effects of sublethal levels of neonicotinoids on honeybees in the field and in the lab. They found in the lab group that the exposure led to a significant impairment of the bees’ abilities to learn and remember smells. This is particularly important as bees rely in part on the specific scents of certain flowers in their foraging and pollination behaviours. In the field, the neonicotinoids impair bees’ abilities to forage efficiently and navigate to and from the nest. Effects are being seen in the field.

These findings are worrying as they show that the levels of neonicotinoids that many bees are exposed to are impacting learning and foraging abilities. If bees cannot forage efficiently, then they cannot pollinate efficiently. This does not bode well for our already suffering global food security.

Another concerning finding is that these impacts are being exacerbated by other pesticides. This is very important as there is a lot of overlap in pesticide use and also regular switching of pesticides. This means that the majority of bees will be affected as they find themselves in ever increasingly common regions of extensive pesticide usage.

This study is great in showing an actual physiological change that results in the cells of bees in response to exposure to neonicotinoids. The use of research in a lab and field environment also helps with securing the accuracy and representativeness of their findings and reducing the opportunity to dismiss this important work. However, Mary Palmer and her team do state in the paper that improvements could be made. They explain that the cultured KCs do show marginally different levels of response to actual KCs and that future work could look into this disparity.

Regardless of the potential flaws, this study empirically shows neonicotinoids directly impacting bee learning and memory. I’m sure that this study will be just one of many similar studies appearing in the near future. The research is likely to be faced by a lot of opposition, with papers like the above being in the firing line of organisations who intend to undermine as much as possible.

This area is a hot topic and the demand for this type of research is ever increasing. Let’s hope that the methodology is a stringent as possible giving opposition very little excuse to dig their claws in and undermine very important work.

Killing Our Bees: The Pesticide Story

Bee numbers have fallen by 50% in the last 25 years in the UK and US. This is a huge problem as bees pollinate a third of the food we eat, and are therefore paramount to our food security.

There has been extensive research carried out to determine what is causing this rapid decline in these precious insects. Main culprits include the varroa mite, loss of habitat and increased pesticide use.

A recent study has found that certain pesticides called neonicotinoids are having hugely detrimental effects on our bees. It has been shown that bee colonies in regions with neonicotinoid pesticide use have an 85% reduction in the number of queens the nest can produce. This means that very few new colonies are being formed the next season. The researchers also found that the colonies were smaller in the presence of the pesticides and therefore at higher risk of death.

Other researchers have found that the neonicotinoids lead to changes in the brain functioning of bees. The neonicotinoid pesticides are altering the bees’ abilities to navigate back to the colony. This means that a huge number are not returning to the nest and if they do not find their way, they die.

All of these factors are having a hugely detrimental effect on the already diminishing bee populations.

With these discoveries, a proposal has been put forward calling for the ban of the use of three types of neonicotinoid pesticides across Europe. This ban would see the halting of use of these three pesticides on crops including oil seed rape and sunflowers. The decision will be made on Friday, when the members of the European Commission vote on the matter.

This proposal has seen enormous public support. The campaign group Avaaz set up a petition so the public could show their feelings on the matter. They have managed to obtain over 2.5 million signatures and a massive 70% of Britons have voted in favour of the ban.

However, regardless of this public support, the UK environmental secretary, Owen Paterson is not supporting the ban. He is also not alone. Germany and Spain are also opposing the ban and this outweighs the support from France, Poland and The Netherlands.

Knowing the state of bee populations in Europe and their predicted future decline, it seems very short sighted to ignore these warning signs associated with the neonicotinoid pesticides. This is again a case of our policy makers ignoring scientists’ push for urgent action to enable brighter futures. As the bee populations continue to crash the world powers are putting global food security at great risk by maintaining their ignorance towards these kinds of matters.

Instead of taking proactive action to maintain well-being for future generations, policy makers are acting with short term interests in mind. Yes, with a ban on these three pesticides there will likely be a fall in certain areas of crop productivity. But we have the technology and knowledge to manage this in a safer and more sustainable way so that this fall will not continue.

The over-reliance on these damaging chemicals is not a new problem, and it was hoped that lessons would have been learned from the DDT disaster and release of Silent Spring over 50 years ago.

It does seem that some nations are beginning to see the problems we are currently facing and will continue to face in the future. Some powers seem to be thinking in a more proactive manner, which is great. However, until the majority of nations are on board with this kind of approach very little can and will be done.