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Pesticides banned by EU for their potential harm to bees

  • The EU will ban three commonly used pesticides by the end of 2018 in a bid to protect bee populations.
  • A committee passed the measure with a majority vote after research emerged earlier this year demonstrating that each compound posed a threat to wild bees and honeybees (Apis mellifera), whose pollination services are critical for crop production.
  • Environmental and consumer groups applauded the decision.
  • But several groups representing farmers voiced concerns about how effectively the measure would improve bee health, as well as the difficulty its passage posed to farmers who depend on using these pesticides.

European Union member states voted to accept a proposal banning three commonly used pesticides on April 27 in a bid to protect bee populations.

“Bee health remains of paramount importance for me since it concerns biodiversity, food production and the environment,” Vytenis Andriukaitis, the EU commissioner for health and food safety, said in a statement from the EU. Andriukaitis said the European Commission-proposed ban of clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam arose from recent research demonstrating that each compound posed a threat to wild bees, as well as the honeybees (Apis mellifera) whose pollination services are critical for crop production.

A western honeybee (Apis mellifera). Image by Andreas Trepte via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5).

Scientists have not been able to identify a single cause for the precipitous die-off of bees around the world since beekeepers first raised concerns in the mid-2000s. Instead, after years of research, they believe a combination of factors, including pesticide use, parasites, disease, and the use of veterinary medicines, are to blame. The EU voted in 2013 to outlaw the use of these three members of the neonicotinoid family of pesticides in flowering crops likely to attract bees. But in February 2018, an EU study pointed to broader risks for honeybees, solitary bees and bumble bees, said Jose Tarazona, who leads the pesticides unit of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

“There is variability in the conclusions, due to factors such as the bee species, the intended use of the pesticide and the route of exposure,” Tarazona said in a statement from the EFSA. “Some low risks have been identified, but overall the risk to the three types of bees we have assessed is confirmed.”

The research revealed that the pesticides could affect the nervous systems of different bee species by multiple avenues. For example, imidacloprid poses a high risk to honeybees when the powder drifts on the wind from crops to which it’s been applied. The same pesticide also ends up in the nectar and pollen of treated plants, which poses a high risk to bumblebees.

Recent research in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives indicates that imidacloprid may also influence how the human body produces estrogen.

In the lone exception to the ban, closed greenhouses that keep bees out will be allowed to use these pesticides.

Worker buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris). Image by Alvesgaspar via Wikimedia Commons (GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0).

The European Commission said it would adopt the new regulations soon and that it would begin enforcing the ban by the end of 2018.

Several organizations have led a series of campaigns to restrict pesticide use in the EU, and they applauded Friday’s vote.

“This move is critical for protecting bees and other important pollinators,” Wiebke Schröder, a campaign manager for SumOfUs, said in a statement to the press. SumOfUs, a consumer advocacy group, said it collected more than 633,000 signatures in a petition started following the release of new research on the neonicotinoids in question earlier this year.

“[We] hope this ban will encourage governments around the world to follow suit,” Schröder said.

Groups that represent farmers have voiced their opposition to the ban because it could jeopardize food production.

“European agriculture will suffer as a result of this decision,” Graeme Taylor of the European Crop Protection Association told The Guardian newspaper. “Perhaps not today, perhaps not tomorrow, but in time decision makers will see the clear impact of removing a vital tool for farmers.”

Guy Smith, a representative of the National Farmers’ Union in the United Kingdom, called the conclusions drawn from the recent research into question.

“There is a real risk that these restrictions will do nothing measurable to improve bee health, while compromising the effectiveness of crop protection,” Smith said to The Guardian.

A solitary bee (Anthidium florentinum), feeding on a flower. Image by Alvesgaspar via Wikimedia Commons (GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0).

But Greenpeace warned that prohibiting the use of clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam did not go far enough.

Franziska Achterberg, the organization’s food policy adviser to the UK, said EU governments needed to understand “that these three neonicotinoids are just the tip of the iceberg.”

“The use of four other neonicotinoids and other insecticides with similar effects on bees is completely unrestricted in Europe,” Achterberg said in a statement released on April 26 before the vote. “A chemical-by-chemical approach can no longer guarantee the protection of the environment or health.”

Banner image of bees by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

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