Why is everyone talking about bees and neonicotinoids?

On 9th January 2021 it was announced that the UK ban on the use of neonicotinoids will be lifted for sugar beet farmers for 120 days. The 2021 planting season for sugar beet is covered by these 120 days and so neonicotinoid treated sugar beet can legally be planted across 100,000 hectares of land in 2021. Once planted that sugar beet will then stay in the ground until it’s harvested up to a year later.

The EU banned outdoor use of neonicotinoids in April 2018, to protect bees. This was five years after research showed the impact that these insecticides have on bee populations.

Sugar beet is wind pollinated and harvested before it flowers, so the impact of the crop being treated with neonicotinoids is that the insecticide will end up in our rivers. Neonicotinoids in UK rivers were at chronic levels in 2017 before the EU ban.

What are neonicotinoids?

Neonicotinoids are a family of insecticides that work by affecting the nervous system of insects. The neonicotinoid family of insecticides are all hard to pronounce and include acetamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, nitenpyram, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam. Even though neonicotinoids are restricted or banned in many countries the global market for them is still worth big money to Bayer CropScience and the other companies making them. It’s a billion dollar industry.

Where are neonicotinoids used?

Neonicotinoid use isn’t completely banned. Acetamiprid and thiacloprid are used as seed treatments for cereals, soil treatment for pot plants in the ornamental sector and as a spray on a range of glasshouse crops. The EU has also been granting emergency use of neonicotinoids in a range of settings including golf courses with garden chafer beetles. Closer to home many of the most common pet flea treatments contain neonicotinoids, a use connected to high levels of  the neonicotinoid imidacloprid in UK rivers in 2020.

Insect Solidarity

Is this development really that important for bees?

Sugar beet doesn’t rely on bees for pollination, this ban is a limited temporary lifting for one crop and the NFU thinks the evidence is inconclusive… so why should we care?

It’s the fact that we’re not sure how the use of neonicotinoids on one crop impacts insects that is why we should be acting with caution. Insect numbers in the UK are in serious decline and this includes bee populations. Research has shown the impact that neonicotinoids have on bees, what’s less clear is the scale of impact that a temporary lifting of a ban like this can have on their decline in the wild. What is undeniable is that using neonicotinoids places this insecticide in the environment; not just in a crop but also the in soil and rivers. We believe it is important to challenge every use of neonicotinoids because:

  • we know from lab research that neonicotinoids have a significant impact on bees, though we won’t know the full impact these insecticides are having in the real world until more research is done. Until that research is done we should act with great caution
  • using neonicotinoids on crops is linked to an increase in the insecticide in UK rivers leading to unintended impacts on river insects. Challenging neonicotinoid use is an act of insect solidarity for bee lovers
  • once in the environment these chemicals hang around for a while so any use will have a longer legacy. The half-life of neonicotinoids in soil can exceed 1000 days

What do we want?

There are some clear steps that haven’t been taken to reduce the impact of these insecticides on our ecosystems. The use of neonicotinoids on sugar beet is to tackle aphids, a problem that has clear insecticide-free solutions that need greater prioritisation and investment. We need:

  • to diverge from the EU’s cycles of emergency permissions and see some strong UK leadership to set new standards in reducing neonicotinoid use
  • greater government  investment in and prioritisation of insecticide-free solutions to things like the current aphid surges on sugar beet farms
  • a commitment to not repeat this temporary lifting of the neonicotinoid ban, an act that is a disincentive for the sugar industry to seek insecticide-free solutions