From the Farm: Who speaks for the bees?

By Jonathan Underhill

There’s nothing like pesticides to neatly divide opinion along predictable lines.

Greenpeace said the European Commission’s two-year moratorium on the use of neonicotinoid chemicals in pesticides “makes it crystal clear that there is overwhelming scientific, political and public support for a ban.”

New Zealand’s own Agcarm lobby group for manufacturers of bug and weed sprays (including the two European companies most affected by the EC ban, Syngenta and Bayer), disagreed.

“Clear scientific evidence has taken a back-seat to a politically-based decision on regulation, which could mean the reduction of effective crop protection products in Europe,” Agcarm CEO Graeme Peters said.

New Zealand’s government-funded Science Media Centre helpfully provided a range of expert opinion from around the globe in response to the ban on the neonicotinoid pesticides clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam that are covered by the EC moratorium but are still on sale in New Zealand.

In the pro-ban camp:
Dr Nigel Raine, Reader in Animal Behaviour at Royal Holloway University of London, said: “The weight of peer-reviewed scientific evidence suggests that field-relevant exposure to neonicotinoid pesticides can have adverse effects on bees."

Among the naysayers:
Professor Lin Field, Head of Biological Chemistry and Crop Protection at Rothamsted Research, said: “We are concerned that the decision has been made through political lobbying, rather than a comprehensive and sound scientific risk-benefit assessment. There are many other factors known to affect bee colonies – the varroa mite, the bee viruses spread by the mites, pesticides that beekeepers use to kill the mites, climate effects and flower and nectar availability – all of which need to be taken into consideration."

No one doubts bees are disappearing. I rarely see a honey bee in my garden in Wellington any more. Federated Farmers bee industry spokesman John Hartnell says at least 50 percent of the “pollination force” that was in New Zealand prior to 2000 has gone, much of that attributable to the varroa mite.

Hartnell works closely with chemical companies like Bayer, reasoning it is better to be around the table than lobbing grenades from afar. He says the company has lifted its game since the early days of the chemical seed coatings, when there were issues with drift. And he’s sitting down with a chemical company this Friday to hear the results of the latest industry research, doubtless showing the industry in a good light.

What’s good about the EC ban, he says, is that it provides a two-year window to do some deeper research into the impact of neonicotinoids on bees. Up until now, “a lot of it has been hypothetical” and in New Zealand “nobody has seen any bee loss directly related to neonicotinoids”.

The EC moratorium stems from an assessment by the European Food Safety Authority and that food safety body was the first to acknowledge shortcomings in the data used to reach its conclusions.

But it did reach three conclusions.

* Exposure to the chemicals from pollen and nectar should only be allowed in crops not attractive to bees.
* There was a risk bees were exposed to the dust from the coated seeds.
* Field studies showed acute effects on honey bees from exposure to the chemicals via gluttation – the fluids that plants produce – based on a risk assessment of maize treated with thiametoxam.

Hartnell says there are questions about leaching of the chemical after the harvesting of maize and it is possible, particularly during a hot summer, that bees would be attracted to the gluttation fluids as a source of water.

It is highly unlikely New Zealand will enact a ban on these chemicals any time soon, and not just because of the deep-pocketed influence of the industry lobbyists. Farmers will argue that crop yields would suffer if pesticide chemicals were banned and would most likely look to other classes of chemicals as a substitute.

But the scientific community will be wiser as a result of the research effort during the two-year European moratorium and any definitive findings of harm will eventually be felt in New Zealand.

Change is slow and the pesticide industry is regarded with mistrust by swathes of the community. Some would say phrases like “crop protection products” are euphemisms. But equally, Greenpeace has to be careful it doesn’t alienate the public with tub-thumping slogans.

Meantime, the honey bee is on the run, chased off by a cocktail of biological, chemical and environmental threats.



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