On July 12th a coalition of businesses from major sectors of the UK economy, academics, and civil society called on the Government to #StandByBees. The coalition launched a petition to introduce clear and ambitious targets for the reduction of hazardous pesticides and demanded support for British farmers in adopting pesticide-free methods to protect the British countryside. 

Here’s what you need to know, and how to support.

Bees and neonicotinoids

Bees are a key component of global food ecosystems. Close to 75% of the world’s crops producing fruit and seeds for human consumption depend on pollinators. However, Britain’s bees have been in rapid decline since the 1970s, with recent research showing a 60% decrease in flying insects in England over the past two decades. This is largely attributed to habitat loss and the use of chemicals such as neonicotinoids (also known as neonics or NNIs).

Chemically similar to nicotine, neonicotinoids are the most widely used insecticides globally. They are used on more than 140 crop varieties to control a variety of pests. They are also a relatively new type of insecticide. The first, known as imidacloprid, was launched by Bayer Cropscience in 1991. Since then a further six compounds have been put on the global market. By 2008, neonicotinoids had taken a 24% share of the total insecticide market of €6.33 billion.

While contact pesticides remain on the surface of plants, such as leaves, neonicotinoids are systemic. This means they’re taken up by the plant and transported through the leaves, flowers, roots, stems, pollen and nectar. While older insecticides degrade fairly rapidly in the environment, neonicotinoids are much more persistent. They can last for months to years in soil, potentially leaching into groundwater under some conditions. They also remain active in the plant for many weeks, protecting the crop from pests season-long. Between 2000 and 2016, the weight of neonicotinoids applied to all crops in the UK increased by 232% to 87,704kg.

How neonicotinoids threaten pollinators

Neonicotinoids are more toxic to invertebrates like insects than they are to mammals and birds, affecting the central nervous system of insects. They do this by affecting the central nervous system; binding to receptors of the enzyme nicotinic acetylcholine and causing excitation of the nerves, leading to eventual paralysis and death. This specific neural pathway is more common in insects than warm-blooded animals, making it specifically more toxic to insects than mammals.

The problem, however, is that there’s no differentiation between an insect seen as a ‘pest’ and a pollinator, and neonicotinoids cause damage to both. Bees, in particular, have a genetic vulnerability to neonicotinoids because they have more of these receptors than other insects. And, unlike many insects classified as pests, they have fewer genes that detoxify harmful chemicals in their systems.

Neonicotinoids were originally welcomed as much safer for humans, livestock and birds than other options. Treating seeds and soil were seen as better pest-targeting methods than spraying crops, while also reducing the number of spray applications needed in a field. However, over time, it has become clear that these chemicals pose extreme risks to bees and other pollinators. Their systemic nature, persistence in crops and soil, and presence in pollen and nectar builds into low-level, continued exposure for pollinators. The extent of the issues this may cause is still not fully understood, but it’s clear that bees are threatened by continued use of neonicotinoids.

Even in a situation where neonicotinoids aren’t present at a level to kill bees, their low-level presence in pollen and nectar can severely impair pollinator health. This includes disruption to foraging behaviour, homing ability, communication and larval development.

Several studies show that exposure to insecticides at low doses can negatively affect the immune system of bees, making them more susceptible to the impact of parasite and disease infections. A clear increase in growth of Nosema fungal disease was reported in bees reared in colonies exposed to very low doses of imidacloprid, at levels below those considered harmful to bees.


Banning neonicotinoid use

In 2013 the European Commission severely restricted the use of multiple neonicotinoids to protect bees. This was based on a 2012 risk assessment from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). In 2017, it went on to prepare three proposals to completely ban outdoor uses of these substances due to identified risks to bees. In the UK specifically, neonicotinoids were banned in 2018 due to the harmful impact they were having on bees and other pollinators.

However, in both 2020 and 2021, the UK government acted to authorise their emergency use on crops, against the advice of its own scientific advisors and despite the risks posed. One type of neonicotinoid is now currently still in use after being reauthorised for use in January 2022 to treat this season’s sugar beet crop. There have since been indications from within the Department for Environment, Agriculture and Rural Affairs that the period of reauthorisation may be extended by up to three years, which goes against advice by the Government’s own Expert Committee on Pesticides and the Health and Safety Executive.

This puts bees and other pollinators at extreme risk, and must be resisted.

The #StandByBees petition

Pollinator decline poses extreme threats to biodiversity and food production. The #StandByBees petition is backed by businesses including Neal’s Yard Remedies, The Body Shop, Daylesford Organic and the British Beauty Council, and aims to reach 100,000 signatures to secure a parliamentary debate on the subject before DEFRA decides whether to extend the derogation for the 2023 sugar beet season.

This coalition is calling on the government to set a clear target to reduce both the overall amount of pesticides used in farming and the toxicity of those pesticides. Using pesticides to protect crops must be balanced against the long-term dangers they pose to nature, and regulation needs to be accompanied by support for British farmers to adopt proven nature-friendly and regenerative methods such as integrated pest management, protecting agricultural production, food security, and soil health for all.

The coalition argues this is an opportunity to create a more sustainable farming industry that leads by example, supports nature and doesn’t cost the earth. A clear pesticide reduction target, alongside new support for farmers in adopting alternative approaches, should encourage innovation and help protect the health of the British countryside and food security for future generations. Join us in calling on the UK government to do better, to protect our pollinators and, ultimately, all of us.

Sign the petition here and learn more here