PETER FROST asks why we are still waiting for a ban on the chemicals that are killing our bees.
HONEY bees and other pollinating insects are at risk from killer chemicals called neonicotinoids and not enough is being done about it. You know it, the government knows it, both the EU and the UN know it, but not enough is being done to stop the slaughter.
Bees and other insects play a crucial part in the survival and success of our native plants both wild and cultivated. They are a vital and fundamental part of the complicated structure that is our natural countryside.
The role they play is global, not just here in Britain.
Honey bees don’t just flit from flower to flower collecting the nectar they need to make their honey. Together with bumblebees, other species of bee and many other pollinating insects, they fertilise over three quarters of our wild and agricultural flowering plants. Without them we would all starve and so would all animals and birds.
Back in 2012, I wrote an article for this paper warning of a terrible sickness then being found more and more among bee colonies.
That article described a growing problem for bee farmers called colony collapse disorder (CCD).
This is a worldwide phenomenon that sees worker bees disappear abruptly from the hive — and without the workers, the colony collapses.
CCD was originally found in the USA in late 2006. It spread to Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and Germany. By 2007 it had reached our British hives.
So what causes it? In my earlier article I reported a number of suspected causes. Mobile phone signals disrupting bee navigation; Wild African bee swarms; mite-borne viruses and of course climate change.
Chief suspect, however, was the increasing use of a new breed of virulent insecticide chemicals known as neonicotinoids.
Neonicotinoid insecticides are among the most widely used by a profit-hungry agribusiness for coating all sorts of seeds.
The residues from these seed coatings were turning up in all parts of plants including the sexual organs of flowers where the bees collect their honey.
By 2013 the case against neonicotinoids was so strong the EU introduced a temporary ban on their use across Europe.
This was despite opposition from our government, which was bowing to pressure from both the National Farmers Union and big, often US-based agribusiness.
The ban would be in place until the end of May 2017 when it would be made permanent. So far we have heard nothing officially from the Agricultural Commission of the EU. Nothing, that is except a number of special cases to use the chemicals that it has allowed.
These cases were supposed to be limited and controlled and only in exceptional emergencies where pest outbreaks posed an imminent economic danger that could not be treated any other way.
In fact 82 per cent of these notifications did not provide any economic evidence of a threat to plant production, and around the same percentage did not list any alternative means of pest control.
Most countries provided no evidence that the neonicotinoids would be used in a limited and controlled way.
Virtually half of these requests for derogations were filed solely by pesticide manufacturers, their trade associations or seed producers. Only 14 per cent were filed by actual growers working alone.
Romania was the leading EU applicant for these derogations, with 20 notifications, closely followed by Finland and Estonia, with nine each. Britain notified Brussels of three emergency authorisations.
Now of course Brexit, when completed, will mean that Britain will be able to set its own bans and permissions about any farm chemicals.
Meanwhile more and more scientific evidence has come to light showing the danger of neonicotinoids to honey bees and other pollinating insects.
This new evidence seems to have convinced the EU Commission to introduce a complete ban and cite high acute risks to bees. This ban could be in place this year if the proposals are approved by a majority of EU member states.
Here in Britain, a fierce battle has been fought between environmental campaigners and farmers and the multi-million pound pesticides industry. This industry argues the insecticides are vital for crop protection.
Anti-neonicotinoid groups, like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Pesticide Action Network Europe, tell us the amount of scientific evidence on the toxicity of these insecticides is so high that there is no way these chemicals should remain on the market.
Nearly four and a half million people have signed an online petition to ban neonicotinoids.Earlier this year, UN food and pollution experts issued a severely critical report on the more general use of pesticides arguing that it was a myth they were needed to feed the world and calling for a new global convention to control their use.
As the colours of our fields change, our native honey farmers move their hives around the country.
It is bright yellow rape fields this month, fruit orchards at blossom time very soon; later it will be heather uplands. In fact it will be anywhere the busy, hard-working bees can help farmers achieve heavy fruitful harvests.
So we need to take very seriously the fact that Britain’s honey bee population has been cut in half over the last 25 years. If that scale of decline continues it spells disaster for our countryside and our agricultural and horticultural industries.
It also means no more delicious British honey, still one of the most evocative products of our wonderful wildlife.
Rupert Brook remembered it in his poem The Old Vicarage, Grantchester written while in Berlin in 1912. “Stands the church clock at ten to three? And is there honey still for tea?”
Bees still buzz among the willow catkins on the water-meadow at Granchester and in the huge yellow fields of rape nearby.
Later this year soft fruit bushes and our many orchards will also need these buzzing sex machines to carry out the complicated process of moving pollen from anthers to stamens deep inside flowers thus starting the production of seeds or fruit.
Without bees, quite simply much of our countryside would die and if we let it happen ultimately the human race will die with it.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 16 June 2017.