Bee-ware, poison in the pollen?

Peter Cox examines the presence of pesticides in bee honey

“Charismatic mega-fauna” is a term often used in the conservation world to refer to animals that inspire empathy, and which can attract public donations. Polar bears, pandas and penguins are in the list. It’s easy to understand, who doesn’t love pandas? However, it is harder for us to get excited over the conservation of creepy crawlies, as, deep down, many of us may let out a sigh of relief if we were told that fewer spiders would be guests in our houses this winter. Over the last few decades, however, honey bees have become the charismatic mini-fauna of the insect world. They’re cute and, after all, who doesn’t like honey?

An ambassador for creepy crawlies is becoming increasingly important because their demise is largely unrecognised. One of the major causes of this are pesticides, the most political of which are neonicotinoids (neonics). These are pesticides which are applied as coatings to seeds, and dissolved into the soil to be taken up via the plant roots.  Once the plant grows, the neonics are present in every part of the plant. In the early 1990s, these pesticides were seen as the next big thing. It was to be a targeted pesticide that would kill any plant-eating pest without the wider environmental impacts of earlier pesticides, but this was not the case. Evidence from numerous studies show that there are effects on pollinators. Honeybees were shown to have a reduced sperm count and became worse at navigating their surroundings. Bumblebees also became less effective at gathering pollen when fed a neonic diet. Wild bees also tend to suffer more negative effects, which is an important point, because these make up the vast majority of bee species. Honey bees are just seven of the twenty-four thousand bee species on earth. Of the 98 native Irish species, only one is a honey-producing bee.

There was hope that the use of neonics would be curtailed in 2013, when the EU banned the use of three neonics on flowering crops attractive to bees. A vote which Ireland abstained from and, in 2015, the UK lifted the ban in some areas.

It is a common but false argument that the fact that not everything is known is taken to mean nothing is known, and this fallacy can be seen clearly in the climate change debate. Dr Jane Stout of the Botany department in Trinity says that there is “not enough knowledge on contamination and residues from pesticides in Ireland” but this statement should not be taken to mean we don’t know the potential damage. Rather we don’t yet know how far these real damages will infiltrate into the environment.

It is from this topic that a recent study from Switzerland has exploded into the news. It is a simple study with quite sobering results. The researchers tallied up the levels of neonics in honey samples from every continent except Antarctica. They found that neonics were present in 75% of the samples that they tested. In total, 48% of the samples had neonic levels high enough to have negative effects on non-targeted insects. The study gives a worldview of levels of these pesticides and concludes that their effects are pervasive. The study also takes into account the sublethal effects. This is something that is largely disregarded, as regulators only look at LD50s, which is a measure of the amount of a substance that kills 50% of a population, when making decisions.

This study is by no means the final word, and it should really only be taken as preliminary research. The number of samples taken was small (198) and the way that they collected the honey was not ideal, with friends and colleagues sending in samples from around the world. In measuring honey, the results are restricted to only honey bees and, as we’ve seen, they are not the only ones at risk. In addition, neonics are not the only harmful chemicals being used in agriculture or at home, and looking beyond neonics is a task that needs urgent attention. However, these are all avenues for further study and having a global picture on this issue for the first time is a major step. Cian White, a doctoral candidate in the School of Natural Sciences in Trinity, said that the study showed “the scale of the issue: neonicotinoids are pervasive in our environment and our food”.

Ten years ago, a study like this would probably not have been published in as prestigious a publication as Science, nor would it have received the press attention that it did.

So, with this added attention, why are neonicotinoids still the most widely used pesticides? They’re big business. Bayer, an agrichemical giant, is one of the major producers of neonics and, in 2016, their net income was over €4.5 billion. A study, which was funded by Bayer, led to the American Environmental Protection Agency (AEPA) approving one of Bayer’s products. The product was later discredited by the AEPA’s scientists in a leaked document stating that “deficiencies were identified that render the study supplemental”.

In 2016, a landmark study showed that the number of wild bees in England had decreased by an average of 7% since 2002, the same year Bayer produced a study finding no ill effects on bumblebees from neonics. This type of thing happens a lot: an independent study will come out and show negative effects and a few months later an industry-backed study will say the opposite. It is a classic recipe that is eerily similar to cigarette manufacturers’ practices a decade ago.

With the political nature of neonics and their known effects on the honey bee, a charismatic mini-fauna, this study has burst into the collective conscious. What we do with it is up to us. A lot of the problem is our unwillingness to change. As much as the agrichemical companies are to blame, they are facilitated by us. We expect cheap and abundant food and, in order to reach that demand, pesticides are used.

The percentage of disposable income in America being spent on food in 2007 was 7.9% less than 1960s levels. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says that a third of the food produced on the planet is wasted. Maybe if we were willing to pay a little more and throw out a little less, neonicotinoids wouldn’t be as much of a problem. Food for thought?