In a widely popular decision among environmental groups and scientists, the EU voted last week to ban all outdoor use of one of the world’s most popular insecticide-“neonics” or neonicotinoids.
These compounds have been suspected to have a very negative impact on the health of the honeybees and wild bees around the world, especially in places where this insecticide has been in active use. Initial research was patchy, and there was much backlash over the proposed ban by environmental groups. In 2017, a large scale study was launched to understand the effect of these insecticides on bees of various kinds. The result of that study turned into a significant policy in April of 2018.
Neonics have been hailed as one of the most effective insecticides in the world. It is an insecticide that directly affects the nervous system of insects, making the neurons fire continuously until they stop, eventually leading to death (source). When the substance was initially discovered in Japan, it was found to be 100 times more effective than the insecticides used at that time.
The insecticide is applied directly to seeds just after they are planted into the soil, and are taken up by growing plants.
The substance has been in use ever since, but concerns over it’s effect on bees began to emerge in the early part of this decade. Researches found that the substance had a tendency to be taken up by plants, eventually turning up as residues in the pollen and nectar; the source of food for bees.
The result of this ban was the prohibition of the use of neonics in outdoor agricultural activities. The insecticide can only be used in closed glasshouses in Europe.
The bee populations around the world have been in severe decline. Many reasons have been cited for this, including the radio signals that are emitted by telephone towers. The effect of neonics on bees is another area that has been causing concern for the scientific community.
For example, a research conducted in Sweden (source) found that even though the insecticide did not affect hives of honeybees, it did significantly affect bumblebees. The bumblebees exposed to the plants treated with this substance were unable to accumulate fat stores in their body to survive the winter.
On the back of rising concerns from the food industry as well as various scientists, the EU banned the use of three most popular neonics-clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam, specifically on crops that are attractive to bees in 2013. These crops were sunflower, oilseed rape and maize. This ban was met with a lot of resentment from the insecticide industry, which led to a large scale research on the effect of neonics on bees.
The study that proved to be the turning point
The study conducted in 2017 was the largest of it’s kind to study the effects of these substances on bees. Initial studies involving this subject was met with criticism because the methods were not robust enough. For example, many industry professionals felt that lab studies exposed bees to significantly higher levels of neonics than found in nature. This, they felt, exaggerated the results. In fact, even rigorous research in France that showed that honeybees exposed to neonics failed to return home, were questioned because the doses were supposedly “unrealistic” (source).
The study in 2017 was commissioned after many EU members felt that the evidence was not strong enough to back the proposal to ban neonics. It was, in fact, funded by the industry of insecticides. With a funding of $3 million, scientists from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) near Wallingford, UK, had put honeybees, mason bees (Osmia bicornis) and bumblebees in 33 oilseed-rape fields in the United Kingdom, Germany and Hungary. This time, the seeds, sown in winter, had been coated with either clothianidin or thiamethoxam, or with a neonicotinoid-free pesticide treatment.
Peer reviews felt that the study was robust, well sampled and spread out in various scenarios. The team also had a statistician who could identify if the results produced were significant enough.
The result was staggering. Bumblebees in all three countries reported less efficiency in working when exposed to neonics. Their ability to hibernate was especially affected. The effect on honeybees was a bit more complicated. In UK and Hungary, the honeybees exposed to neonics produced lesser egg cells suggesting lesser reproductive success. However, in Germany the results were reversed.
This study was also supported by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which confirmed that neonics, especially three of the compounds of neonics, were damaging to bees. The result of this was the ban on neonics in outdoor use. The insecticide can only be used in closed glasshouses in Europe.
The insecticide industry is displeased with this decision, and feel that the study was still not robust enough and failed to include realistic conditions. In fact, they believe that it the threat to bees is minimal compared to the alternative of lack of food and diseases in crops (source).
Other scientists feel that while the ban is good news, the industry now needs to supply a new variant of the insecticide which could potentially cause more harm. If that happens, the ban will serve no purpose.
However, the ban proves that world governments and policy makers, especially in the West, are not afraid to go against lobbies and vote for policy changes that will protect the environment. This is good news, on the back of talks of weakening the forest protection in Brazil.
All images from Google Images.