A Bad Week for Bees and Solar

It has been a bad week at Habitat Aid’s HQ. The spending axe has fallen – again – on renewables – which has effectively now halted the building of any solar farms not in the system from April 2016.

Solar Century site
Solar site seeded last year.
I know this is good news for some folk, but we’d been doing a lot of work for a small number of responsible developers who had gone the extra mile to massively increase biodiversity on previously knackered farmland.

The subsidy system has clearly had its problems, but it has meant that a lot has been achieved. Arguably its biggest issue with solar was that it was too successful! The government seems to have been pretty quick on the trigger.

When someone like Neil Woodford, doyen of City fund managers, writes an open letter to government about what’s going on you might reasonably suspect a serious issue. Neil is certainly not a left wing anti-capitalist dictating the climate change agenda, which is how Amber Rudd has characterised opposition to her views.

The other depressing news this week is the temporary lifting of the ban on neonicotinoids in East Anglia. The chemical involved is precisely the same one which has recently been linked to declines in bee populations in a large scale field trial.

Government has also portrayed this as a political issue. In fairness so have the environmentalists. For them the bad guys are large, well resourced anti-environment agribusinesses, served by their pro-business political servants. For government, the ban was imposed against their wishes and the NFU’s advice by interfering EU bureaucrats.

The Press perpetuates this politicization. The BBC report I’ve linked to above quotes Paul de Zyla from Friends of the Earth, and Radio 4 interviewed someone from 38 Degrees. These are both left leaning lobbying groups*. At the other end of the political spectrum, the next time I hear Nigel Lawson talk about climate change (or lack therof) the radio is going out of the window.

Ditto the next time I hear any environmental policies justified by their benefit to the hard working families of Britain. Er… wouldn’t “short term populism” be a bit more honest?

Left or right wing I’d say the same thing. Environmental issues should not be sacrificed on the altar of political dogma.

*To declare my interest, FoE are customers of ours.

Bees and Pesticides

The bees and pesticides argument rages on. I won’t bore you with the minutiae of the current debate on neonicotinoids, but let’s just say the quality of it leaves something to be desired. There’s much bloody mindedness, politics, mudslinging and finger pointing going on. I’m pleased it has highlighted the decline in bee populations though, which seem to me to be the canary in the coal mine. A ban on neonicotinoids would of course be helpful, but I’m increasingly concerned that folk see this as an instant panacea. Once this single and high profile issue is sorted out – as I hope it will be – then will all be well again? I’m afraid it won’t.

We’re talking here mostly about honeybees and pesticides, as they’re the only bee we know much about. They have a lot to cope with at the moment other than neonicotinoids. For a start there has been the weather here. I have lost a really nice swarm which I hived last summer. Heartbreaking. I did everything right, but they just gave up. Most of my competent beekeeping friends report significant mortality over the extended winter, following last year’s filthy summer. These are experienced beekeepers who keep their bees really well; they’re not over-interventionist or “commercial”, nor do they just trust to luck. We’ve all dealt with the recent enemies of honeybees – nosema and varroa – but this is a new battle.

Bees and Pesticides
Photo: Penn State University
Yesterday I went to a fascinating talk by Maryanne Frazier, of Penn State University’s Centre for Pollinator Research, on bees and pesticides. This reinforced the multiple challenges honeybees are facing. Like many honeybee scientists, Maryanne’s best guess is that there is no single smoking gun behind bee declines in the U.S., but rather a complicated matrix of factors weakening honeybees’ immune systems.

Bees and pesticides don’t mix, and the coktail of pesticides her team are finding in pollen and wax are horrific. They found 31 pesticides in one pollen sample. The average is 6, which is bad enough*. These pesticides can have sub-lethal effects, they can be systemic (like neonicotinoids) and they impact on larva and adult bees in different ways, so their effects are difficult to assess.

What’s worse is that they can be synergistic, so that in combination their impact can be much more extreme than you can predict. Neonicotinoids are very toxic, but more traditional pesticides combine to have really unpleasant effects on colonies. This is true of fungicides and miticides too. Why do I mention miticides? The vast majority of wax in U.S. hives has traces of stuff called Fluvalinate, which was routinely used to wack varroa mites and combines unpleasantly with other pesticides. Fungicides too can be dangerous to bees as they impact microbial activity in the bee gut. Bees also suffer much more exposure to them, as they’re used indiscriminately.

There’s also an issue in the U.S. with the vast monocultures that migratory bee colonies are asked to pollinate. Honeybees are “polylectic” – that’s to say that like Bumblebees they prefer different types of forage to provide a varied and healthy diet. Large scale U.S. commercial beekeeping must add to the strees that these honeybees experience.

So what does Maryanne recommend we do?
1. Manage our honeybees better. We can’t just leave them to fend for themselves, but we can adopt better beekeeping practices. I’d like to think they’re the sort of things I promote already. Change wax regularly, leave lots of stores so artificial feeding is only necessary in dire circumstances, and leave be throughout the autumn and winter months. It’s not rocket science.
2. Provide diverse and season long sources of forage.
3. Improve our regulatory agencies. As in the U.K., U.S. regulators are only interested in the lethal effects of individual toxins on a small group of affected species, which is hopeless. Realistically, we’re not going to be able to stop people using pesticides and honeybees, with their vast ranges, are going to be exposed to them. We have to make sure that the damage that does to them is as limited as possible.
It’s worth pointing out that we can all help with points 2 and 3 by being bee friendly gardeners!

*I hasten to add that the honey itself has no problem. Most of these nasties are fat soluble rather than water soluble, so turn up in beeswax and not honey.

Neonicotinoids again

I’m sure the various campaigns to ban neonicotinoids waged by people like Buglife, the Friends of the Earth and the BBCT are going to carry the day in the UK. I’m confident not least because they are backed by inceasingly persuasive science and, recently, Brussels. A number of retailers have started taking neonicotinoid based products like Bayer’s Provado off the shelves. Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee is hearing evidence about them too.
Just as I thought neonicotinoids were about to get booted into touch in the UK, the agrichemical business is fighting a spirited rearguard action to save them. I wanted to pick up one point in particular from that, which I heard repeated again on the radio this morning by a man from Syngenta.

Foraging bumblebee
Varroa has been a significant problem for honeybees. These are imported mites which attach themselves between the thoracic plates of honeybees and weaken the bees by sucking hemolymph. They also act as vectors for viral diseases. The European honeybee, Apis mellifera, has been defenceless against them. There are now treatments and ways of managing honeybee colonies which help the bees, and a lot of research is going on in this area.

The man from Syngenta said that bee losses were largely a consequence of varroa, not neonicotinoids. This is disingenuous. Recent research suggests the effects of neonicotinoids on honeybees are most marked when in combination with other problems, like the kind of viral diseases spread by Varroa destructor. The key point I wanted to make, though, is this. VARROA ONLY AFFECTS HONEYBEES. There is one honey bee in the UK. As I have blogged before, There are 26 Bumblebees and something over 240 species of solitary bees. Why are they declining? If it’s not varroa what is it? Some of the most persuasive recent research has looked at the impact of neonicotinoids on bumblebees. As for neonicotinoids’ effect on solitary bees (and butterflies, hoverflies, etc.), well… er… we don’t really know.

I did agree with the man from Syngenta when he said that banning neonicotinoids might not halt bee declines, and if it happens there’s a danger bees will disappear off the map of public awareness. There’s climate change, habitat loss, disease, new predators – all sorts of threats which still have to be dealt with.

Unintended Consequences

A poisoned well
I’ve blogged before about neonicotinoids. These are a new generation of systemic pesticides which are being associated with increasing confidence to declining numbers of bees. They were originally used by farmers, particularly in the U.S., who used coated seeds. One of the shocking things about neonicotinoids is that they weren’t properly tested before they were approved and it is only since their introduction that work has been done to show the effects they have. Yesterday we saw the publication of two papers, one from the respected bumblebee experts at Stirling University, which “add weight to a growing body of evidence which suggests that neonicotinoid pesticides may be partially responsible for the declines in populations of both wild bumblebees and domesticated honeybees”. (Bumblebee Conservation Trust)

Some folk have even gone so far as to suggest that neonicotinoids are the single “smoking gun” behind bee losses*, and a huge amount of heat and light has been generated by the debate. Organizations like the Soil Association and invertebrate charity Buglife have repeatedly and unsuccessfully campaigned for them to be banned in the UK, but these chemicals are still the active ingredient in some commonly used household as well as agricultural pesticides.

This is really bad news as gardens are generally great places for insects to be. If you use pyrethroid insecticides in your garden you can kill the “pests” while mitigating the effects on some “good” insects like bees by spraying plants while not in flower, on still evenings. The problem with neonicotinoid insecticides is that even if you follow that advice IT WON’T HELP. The bees are affected by the contaminated pollen and nectar from the plants being sprayed, so whether you spray them directly or not they’re going to cop it, just more slowly.

While the government continues to drag its feet and some gardeners feel they have to use pesticides the least we can do is to make these chemicals harder for them to buy inadvertently. The Soil Association has provided a good list of household products which include neonicotinoids on its website. Bayer have a range of pesticides called Provado, for example, which includes a neonicotinoid called thiacloprid. How would any consumer wandering into an online or local gardening centre know the problems it will cause? Google Provado and you won’t find any mention of its unwelcome effects for several pages. The reviews on Amazon are all glowing (other than the ones I added!).

Wherever you find neonicotinoid based pesticides like Provado please ask the retailer to stop selling them.

*which scientific opinion generally says not; they are one of several problems, but at least one that can be easily fixed.