Why has the UK reintroduced the use of neonicotinoids and why should we care?
Pesticides are one of the biggest threats to bees in the UK. Bees pollinate many of the crops we use for food, so it's important that crops are kept free of pesticides that are harmful to them. Neonicotinoid insecticides are particularly harmful to bees and have been shown to be directly linked to the decline in our bee population. Neonicotinoid products were outlawed in Europe and the UK in 2018 but recently the UK government has given emergency authorisation to use a product containing a neonicotinoid. In this blog we'll explore why that decision was made, what it means and why we should care.
What are neonicotinoids?
Neonicotinoids are a class or group of insecticides that are chemically related to nicotine. They act on receptors in the nerve systems of insects and are extremely toxic to them. They are water soluble and can be applied to soil to be taken up by the crop. They are effective against many crop damaging beetles, grubs and pests.
Neonicotinoids are inexpensive and highly effective, when they were first introduced they were praised for their low-toxicity to many beneficial insects, including bees. It wasn't until around 2012 that research on bees started to put that claim into doubt. Ongoing research into the decline of bee populations concluded that there was a link between their use and the health of bee populations. This lead to the EU wide ban that the UK also adopted.
Has the UK ban been reversed?
Not exactly. In 2018 when the UK government prohibited their use it also made provisions in the legislation so it could consider “emergency authorisations in special circumstances.” This means that the government could give authorisation for “limited and controlled use in cases where it appears necessary because of a specific danger that cannot be contained by any other reasonable means.”
In 2020, the UK government received an application from NFU Sugar and British Sugar seeking emergency authorisation for the use of a neonicotinoid product as a seed treatment on sugar beet.
What special circumstances were they?
The emergency authorisation was sought because of a problem known as 'Virus Yellows disease.' Virus Yellows disease is a complex of three viruses; Beet Mild Yellowing Virus, Beet Chlorosis Virus and Beet Yellows Virus. These viruses are transmitted when aphids that are carrying the viruses feed on the sugar beet.
Virus Yellow disease is particularly a problem in the UK because of our climate, this is especially true the milder our winters become as cold winters are needed to suppress aphid populations that carry the viruses.
Is their use ongoing?
In 2021 the 'neonic trigger' which is the special circumstances that would allow their use was not reached. We experienced a cold winter that resulted in lower than average levels of aphids. The strict conditions were not met and the use of neonicotinoids did not go ahead in 2021. However for 2022 the industry applied for permission to use a neonicotinoid pesticide again and has gained authorisation to treat their crops with a neonicotinoid.
So if our winters remain mild, its use might continue?
That is a very real and genuine concern, especially as climate change and milder winters are already having a negative affect on our bee populations. Combined with the use of an insecticide that is harmful to bees, the ongoing situation could be extremely damaging in the long term. As we have covered in several Just Bee blogs before, the dangers to bees are wide ranging and there is no single solution to protecting them, it is the cumulative effect of multiple threats that could ultimately end in disaster.
Measures have been taken by the sugar beet growers to minimise the risk to bees and it would be misleading to suggest otherwise. Sugar beet is a non-flowering crop and the risks to bees are lower because of that. Conditions also are attached to the authorisation to make sure that flowering crops are not planted in the same soil for a period after. However in clearly taking steps to minimise the risk to bees it also highlights the fact that there is indeed some risk to bees. These are not a 'risk free' usage of neonicotinoids and it's not a risk bees are choosing to take themselves. In the government documents the words 'acceptable risk' is used often and I can't help but wonder if bees would feel the same way?
Earlier this year George Eustice, the UK's environment secretary stated that “The dose level at which no negative impacts on bees occur is unknown.” The truth is we just don't know what kind of impact this 'emergency use' might have on the health of local bee colonies.
Why should we care?
In January 2021 The Guardian newspaper published an article in which scientists were stating that “Insect populations were suffering death by 1,000 cuts” that is to say they are facing extinction by multiple over-lapping threats. The use of neonicotinoids in this case may present a minimal risk on it's own but it could equally be the final cut that tips the balance into an unrecoverable state for our bee populations here in the UK.
Several other EU countries that have a large sugar production industry, such as Belgium, Denmark and Spain have also allowed emergency use of Neonicotinoid pesticides, so it's not just here in the UK where there is concern. It's a situation that we (and many other individuals and organisations) will be keeping a close eye on. In the USA and other countries neonicotinoid use is widespread and we are disappointed that the UK and EU, who are leading the world in restricting the use of harmful pesticides, has again given permission for a neonicotinoid product to be used.
The full UK Government statement on the decision to allow the use of neonicotinoids can be found here. It was updated in March 2022.