environment & politics

To Bee Or Not To Bee

There’s a particularly fascinating article on the Guardian summarising some current strands of research into bee population collapses across the world. It’s fascinating in and of itself, of course – that, according to the Harvard Department of Environmental Health, a widely used pesticide containing neonicotinoids, a deadly nerve agent, is the likely culprit of “sharp worldwide declines in honeybee colonies”. Unsurprisingly, releasing a nerve toxin into the environment turns out not to be a great idea after all.

“The significance of bees to agriculture cannot be underestimated,” says Lu. “And it apparently doesn’t take much of the pesticide to affect the bees. Our experiment included pesticide amounts below what is normally present in the environment.”

To put that in context, it is estimated that the loss of bees would cost the UK economy £1.8bn in terms of having to hand-pollinate the crops that “bees service for free” (other parts of the world are already forced to do this).

The above results are consistent with a wide range of other studies now, dating back years:

Mickaël Henry, at INRA in Avignon, France, agreed with Lu that action is urgently needed on neonicotinoids. “We now have enough data to say authorisation processes must take into account not only the lethal effects, but also the effects of non-lethal doses.” In other words, testing whether the pesticide use kills bees stone dead immediately is no longer good enough, given the hard evidence now available that sub-lethal doses cause serious harm.

The second reason I find this interesting is the classic smear response from Bayer CropScience, who manufacture the pesticide in question, stating that the research was “factually inaccurate and seriously flawed”.

You might have noted companies frothing at the mouth like this before, as it’s exactly the kind of response that tobacco companies deliberately used to discredit the science connecting smoking and cancer, as well as our old favourite, oil companies attempting to discredit the science of global warming. The aim being to spread as much doubt as possible, as quickly as possible, to negate the impacts of the science with the general public, but more importantly the government.

For those of you interested in Bayer’s track record for environment and public health, there’s a neat summary here and also here. It’s pretty shocking stuff, but par for the course for a chemicals company.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.