By lifting the restriction on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides Defra throws a (bee) brick at its own National Pollinator Strategy


Yesterday a brick arrived in the post.  Not just any brick, but a Bee Brick, designed by the Green&Blue company in Cornwall as an architectural addition that can provide habitat for cavity nesting solitary species such as the Patchwork leaf-cutter bee that I discussed during Pollinator Awareness week.  A representative of the company recently got in touch, after having read my blog, and asked if I’d like a sample to try out in the garden.  In the absence of any planned wall building I’ve placed it a couple of metres up on the flat top of a south facing summer house window.  It’s probably a bit late in the season to attract any nesting solitary bees this year, but we’ll see; expect a report back from me at some point.

I had actually encountered the Bee Brick earlier this year at the Chelsea Flower Show which Karin and I attended as a 50th year bucket-list day out.  It was ok, I enjoyed it, the plants and (some of) the gardens were great.  But it was too busy, too expensive and too full of ostentatiously wealthy people for my tastes.

As if to serve as a counter-point to all the good work being done during Pollinator Awareness Week and by companies such as Green&Blue, came the recent news that Defra has agreed to lift the restrictions on use of two neonicotinoid pesticides on oil seed rape across a “limited” area in the east of the country.  It will apparently apply mainly to Suffolk, and cover an area of about 30,000 hectares.  That’s 5% of the UK’s oil seed rape crop.

The decision was made at the behest of the National Farmers Union, and seems to make no farming sense whatsoever given that nationally yields of oil seed rape have not been affected by the restriction on neonicotinoids, with the harvest this year looking to be above average.   Not surprisingly the decision has drawn furious fire from a range of environmental organisations including Buglife and the Wildlife Trusts. Meanwhile Friends of the Earth have threatened legal action, a move prompted by the fact that the Government has refused to allow its independent advisors to publish the details of the decision, including how it was made and what was discussed.

Aside from the lack of transparency, what particularly worries me is that this decision opens the door to further use of these restricted pesticides over the next 12 months, on a region by region basis, until we are back where we were prior to the restrictions being imposed.  The two year restriction on use of neonicotinoid pesticides comes to an end in December, at which point no one outside (and possibly inside) of Defra knows what is going to happen.

The National Farmers Union is being very selective with their use of information about the scientific evidence base for the effects of these pesticides on pollinators.  Dr Chris Hartfield, the NFU’s horticultural policy adviser and lead on bee health issues, was quoted as saying “The majority of the research that has fuelled this debate has been based on artificial dosing studies. The big question in this area is, does this accurately reflect what happens to bees foraging in and around neonicotinoid crops?  We don’t know, but the field studies haven’t shown that they are causing population declines in pollinators”.

Dr Hartfield and the NFU know full well that all of the evidence so far published shows that even at very small (field realistic) doses, neonicotinoid pesticides have been demonstrated to have important, sub-lethal effects on pollinators that may ultimately affect populations of some species.  Surely the wisest course of action is to further restrict their use until we have studied the situation.

This is not the only occasion when the NFU have been less than objective with their use of scientific evidence.  In the past couple of weeks I’ve had a group email exchange with Dr Hartfield in which he talked about the study by Carvalheiro et al. (2013) that “shows these [pollinator] declines have slowed (or even reversed) in the last 2 decades”.  I responded by pointing out that the current situation is not as straightforward as that.  The recent paper that we published in the journal Science showed that the rate of extinctions of UK bees and flower-visiting wasps has in fact increased over the period when Carvalheiro et al. (2013) see a slow down in declines in abundance.

There are a number of reasons why our results may be in disagreement with those of Carvalheiro et al., which we discuss in the paper, including the large statistical confidence interval around the rate of extinction during this latter period. However as with all such data, one or two studies will not give a definitive answer.  I provided Dr Hartfield with a link to our paper but I’m still waiting to receive a reply.

Initiatives such as the Bee Brick, reduced mowing on road verges, the RHS’s Perfect for Pollinators plant list, etc., etc. are important but they are tiny contributions compared to the role that must be played by British agriculture if we are to conserve pollinator diversity in the UK.  Farming accounts for 70% of the land surface in this country and has by far the greatest part to play in reducing biodiversity loss.

Within 12 months of Defra launching the National Pollinator Strategy, the same Government department has decided to bow to pressure and allow some use of a group of pesticides that we know are causing problems, even if they are not the whole story.  Defra is effectively hurling what may be the first of many bricks at itself, ultimately weakening the Strategy.   From conversations with politicians I know that these large departments do not have good internal communication and dialogue, but this seems to be an outstanding example of Orwellian double-think on the part of Defra.


18 thoughts on “By lifting the restriction on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides Defra throws a (bee) brick at its own National Pollinator Strategy

  1. Manu Saunders

    Thanks for writing this (sad) story. Although this sort of thing happens so regularly now in political arenas, it never ceases to amaze me when government decisions like this happen in spite of all the evidence yelling ‘wait!’. Are there any long-term pollinator monitoring projects going on in that area? It would be interesting to see data on before and after communities in the Suffolk area compared to an area that didn’t lift the ban.

  2. afrenchgarden

    Similar situation in France. I wonder if it is a political manoeuvre. Ban neonicotinamides on a European level, appease pressure group and public opinion whereupon the politicians can polish their halos in public. The next step is to quietly re-introduce them? Amelia

  3. Anna

    Someone in government is undoubtedly receiving a large back-hander from the companies that benefit. I find the whole situation jaw-dropping. Great that you are flying the bee flag so to speak.

  4. annieirene

    Thank you for writing this! I’m so glad that you are in discussion with the policy advisor, etc. I feel that I’m not in a position to be able to make a difference or gain any transparency on this issue although it is something I’m passionate about. I aim to write about it on my own blog, I have shared yours as well as the parliament petition. I will also be writing to my local MP – I live in Nottingham now but grew up in Suffolk surrounded by these oil seed rape farms. Please do keep us updated re: your correspondence with the bigwigs. And thanks again!

      1. annieirene

        On a brighter note those bee bricks look like a great idea! I presume that they are designed to be as structurally sound as a normal brick. Let us know if you have any visitors moving in 🙂

  5. Geoff Morris

    Hi. Still puzzled by neonicotinoids. Yields do seem to be up nationally, but locally there have been disastrous yields. Neonicotinoids are only being used in 5% of the farms growing oil seed rape. Surely this gives an opportunity to study the effect of these substances on bee populations. Why spurn this opportunity for research which would clinch it one way or another?

    I still think the culprit is more likely to be Varroa. I believe there was a ban on neonics in France which was dropped because it was inconclusive. A two year moratorium was introduced by the EU, not because of any evidence, but as a precautionary measure. Is there any new evidence? Geoff Morris

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Hi Geoff – where have you seen data on the local “disastrous yields”? I’d be interested to look at it. I’m sure every year some farmers/regions have poor yields due to the weather. Is this any different?

      The problem with the kind of comparison that you are suggesting is that these pesticides are very persistent in the soil so there’s no agricultural fields that are free of pesticides after just two years.

      Varroa only affects honey bees and what we are really concerned with here is the many, many other insect species that could be affected by these pesticides.

      The most recent independent assessment of the evidence is this one:

      Note that the authors are in the process of updating this for 2015.

  6. Geoff Morris

    Hi, Another question. I found this on the wikipedia page on neonics. For soybeans, neonicotinoid seed treatments typically are not effective against the soybean aphid, because the compounds break down 35–42 days after planting, and soybean aphids typically are not present or at damaging population levels before this time.[15][16][17] I was wondering what the time interval between germination and flowering of oil seed rape is typically. I was also wondering if it could have some bearing on whether neonics could be present in the pollen if they have already broken down in the plant.

    I am a retired science teacher and not well placed to answer these questions myself, but it seems to me that they need answering. Geoff Morris

  7. Andy Hamilton

    I’m no expert on bees but what you have said reminds me of the attitude of the Thatcher government in the 80s which continually churned out the same line on a whole range of environmental issues – “there’s no evidence that it’s causing significant damage” (leaving themselves unlimited wriggle-room) and “we will continue to monitor the situation and any new evidence will be considered” (in other words it’s agri-business as usual)

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