What’s Happening To Our Butterflies And Bees?

Insectageddon! scream the headlines. Really? And why should this be? The more bizarre claims on social media I’ve seen recently range from Electro Motive Force to chemtrails (again – groan). What is actually happening to our butterflies and bees here in the UK?

Bye-bye bumblebees?

Rather than just getting annoyed with people on Twitter, I thought it might be helpful to write a quick blog based on the most recent evidence update from the National Pollinator Strategy Plan.

This is a good thing. It’s a 10 year plan to protect our pollinators. It includes a range of government, commercial, academic and non-government organisations. Recently a group of involved scientists specialising in bees and other pollinators published an evidence update for it. There are several findings here which might surprise you.

The Big Picture

To start with, what are the pollinators we’re talking about? The main species are butterflies and bees, moths, hoverflies, and then there are others like wasps and beetles.

Very broadly speaking, most pollinators declined significantly from the 1950s – 1990. This is particularly true of less generalist species needing particular habitats and/or food. Take butterflies, for example; their numbers overall are down something like 40% from the mid seventies, but “habitat specialist” species are down by over 60%.

Since 1990 the trend has been down, but not so dramatically. In the short term a number of species actually seem to have stabilised. Phew!

This trend seems to be true of “wild” bees – that’s to say, solitary bees (we have around 250 different types!) and bumblebees. Two of our 24 bumblebee species are on the verge of extinction here, for example, although some of the more common bumblebees are doing ok. Wild bees exhibit the same trend we’re seeing in other invertebrates. The more common generalists are doing less badly than rarer specialist species.

Over the last decade the number of honeybees in the UK has gone UP – and by quite a lot, seemingly over 50% – as more people have taken up beekeeping and we’ve got better at disease control. This isn’t quite the great news it sounds like, as wild bees do the bulk of our pollinating and we’re only talking about one type of bee here.

Declines in nectar resources appear to have slowed since the 1970s and they actually increased from 1998 – 2007. They’re still estimated to be below prewar levels, and the diversity of nectar-producing plants has continued to decline.

We are beginning to see some shortfalls in production (e.g. in apples) as a possible consequence of falling pollinator numbers.

Causes of Declines

Habitat loss and fragmentation and intensive land management have reduced food and nesting resources. Not only has this lead to declines in overall numbers, but it has disproportionately affected rarer, specialist species.

Chemicals to control pests and weeds, including neonicotinoids, have had a range of direct and indirect affects on pollinators. Urban insect pollinator communities are dominated by common, generalist species; we can see this pretty clearly for butterflies and bees.

Climate change will (continue to) have a number of impacts. Species range has and will change further, as will seasonal activity. The threat from invasive alien plants and predators will also increase.

The impact of the varroa mite on honeybee colonies appears to have been lessened by effective management techniques. We import bumblebees to pollinate crops like tomatoes, which can bring pests and disease.


Plant more flowers, and the right kind of flowers. This could include wildflower field margins and strips.

Protect and restore the flower rich semi-natural habitats we have – e.g. wildflower meadows, heathlands, broad leafed woodland.

Change the management of existing hedges, field margins, road verges, railway embankments, grassland, public green spaces, etc.. These are all potential sites for a wide range of wild pollinators.

Adopt more wildlife friendly land management practices, including organic farming and managing for ecosystem services. Hopefully we’ll start to pay farmers to do this.

Known Unknowns

A phrase which recurs in the evidence summary is “established but incomplete”. We spend so little on this kind of research it’s not surprising. And it’s complicated. We know a lot about honeybees, a reasonable amount about butterflies and moths, and less about bumblebees. Very little about other pollinators. The challenge is to have more “well established” facts. Let’s leave absolutely no doubt that some of the things you read about butterflies and bees are fake news. We’re working on it.

In the meantime, at the very least we can all plant or sow plants for pollinators – more of the right sort of flowers – and buy organic food as much as we can afford to. Plants are – as usual – the key.

Neonicotinoids in Rivers

The neonicotinoids fiasco has so many familiar elements it’s turning into a classic of its kind. Widespread use of a largely untested pesticide has had consequences no-one in authority apparently anticipated.

Today’s news that our rivers are polluted with neonicotinoids is I suppose as unsurprising as it is depressing. These wonder pesticides were supposed to have no residual effect – that was the point of them. Instead, they will be present in our ecosystem for many years after they have been banned.

Please don’t use this product
They are turning up everywhere, even in remote mountain burns. Why? The best guess is that dogs dosed with neonicotinoid flea treatments brought them there. It’s a typical unintended consequence. Everything is connected. You can’t just use a chemical in a limited way.

Did those dogs have owners who would have thought for a second they might be damaging the environment? Of course not. They would be appalled. As appalled as the gardeners who recently discovered they have been buying neonicotinoid treated “bee friendly” plants. Many will still unknowingly be using neonicotinoids in their greenhouses.

Consumers have very little idea about the products they buy. The government is supposed to protect them and the environment by making sure they don’t contain anything problematic. But governments are slow to react, and in many cases just ignorant of the threats posed by new products. This is why they are supposed to follow the precautionary principle:

When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm.

At the very least, consumers should expect accurate and explicit labelling about what they are buying.

By the way, as a footnote to this sorry tale, the only reason we know about it at all is because of the EU Water Framework Directive “watch list” initiative. The EU required the UK to undertake this monitoring. As yet, the environment agency is yet to comment.

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 cocktail 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.

“Official: Mobile Phones are Killing Bees”

This has been the headline across social media this week, which has been blithely repeated and repeated with increasing excitement as if it is fact. Some bloke in Switzerland has published a paper which suggests that “active mobile phone handsets in beehives noticeably induce the rate of worker piping”, which apparently they do when you put a handset in a hive. This becomes “mobile phones are killing honeybees” in the hands of the Daily Mail, the latest in a line of similar stories which have been debunked.
It would be great if mobile phones did kill bees, but I very much doubt they do anymore than solar storms or power lines. “Great” because it would give us a single target to tackle. The truth is much more complicated, as bee scientist Jamie Ellis points out in BBKA News:

I think there is compelling reason to believe that synergisms between stressors are more problemmatic for a colony than any one stressor. There seems to be a growing body of evidence to support this assertion. Regardless, I think it benefits everyone involved with this issue to look at the data critically and approach these losses reasonably.

I have talked about this before in the context of neonicotinoids, which unlike phones really are problematic – but one of several/many problems. Unfortunately, in this case as many others in the natural world, the truth is too complicated and fuzzy for the 140 characters of a Twitter message or, if you are a reader of a blog like this, 1040. Anyway, it gives me a feeble excuse to post a nice picture of a Bombus lapidarius queen on our demo meadow a couple of days ago. Yes, I know it’s a bumblebee not a honeybee – but then who cares? Certainly not the Daily Mail…

What is Going on Out There?

When I was slogging through Physical Science O Level (Grade C, which shows there is a God) I think I assumed that the Victorians had done all the hard work in our back gardens, dissecting, pinning and establishing elaborate taxonomies. Perhaps that’s why we gave up doing it, so that books like Jennifer Owen’s Wildlife of a Garden, containing 30 years of acute observation, are now so startling.
I’m often reminded about how little we know about what is happening outside our back doors when people start discussing bees, which you might think we know a great deal about. Last weekend I pootled off to enjoy a pint and the carvery at the Somerset Beekeepers’ annual bash and catch up with a few folk. Francis Ratnieks, he of the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI) at Sussex, was the key speaker. Francis is the only professor of apiculture in the country, which gives you a sense of the scale of research done here as well as how over-worked his lab must be. Power to him for flogging down to Somerset, completely unpaid, on a Saturday.
Whenever I listen to Francis I come away with the same feelings – how sensible and practical the approach of his group is and how little we know about honeybees. Take flowers, for example. There are endless lists of good bee plants available on websites, in books, and through lectures. I’m aware of academic work that has been done on various seed mixes and agricultural schemes as well, but it turns out not much has been done on garden plants. The Lab in Sussex now have a PhD student measuring the popularity of 30 perennials with honeybees – just the sort of thing your Victorian rector would have done.
Francis reckons the important thing is to help honeybees through the July/August gap, when, counter-intuitively, there are now few flowers in the countryside. Lavender and Borage are his top tips. I’m sure this is true, but I’m not so confident it should be a gardener’s sole priority. In Somerset a major source of colony loss over the last few years has been starvation; warm winter days mean bees fly and use their honey stores too quickly, as there is no forage to be had. By the spring they’ve starved to death. Queen bumblebees use up their reserves too quickly too. It makes sense to me and others – although of course we can’t prove it – for gardeners to concentrate on providing all year round nectar and pollen as much as filling any other gaps there might be in forage locally.
The same lack of certainty fuels the fire of impassioned debate about bees in other areas, most notably the effects of the new generation of systemic pesticides. How pernicious neonicotinoids are no-one really knows – which is a very good reason why they should be banned. We are as far from being well informed about honeybees as I was from getting an A in my Physical Science – and this is an insect we know relatively lots about. Keep up the good work, LASI!

A Singular Enthusiasm

An interesting argument is going on about the use of Neonicotinoid (“Neonic”) pesticides and their effect on bees in particular, which seemingly illustrates what can happen when activists, the media and the outside world collide.

Neonics are a relatively new systemic pesticide, applied to crops by way of a seed coating. There is a consensus that the honeybees which forage nectar or pollen from treated plants suffer some degree of impairment from them, although this is not fatal. On this basis, the chemicals are still licenced for use in the U.K. They are also used in the U.S.

No-one doubts that they kill honeybees if their application is screwed up. Young Maize plants, for example, do something called guttation, when they secrete water through their leaves. If they have been treated with a neonic, this water is fatal to any insect that drinks it. There have been some terrible cases of seeds with inadequately adhesive coatings being drilled in dry weather, producing clouds of toxic dust which kill all before them.

There are concerns, however, over the long term impact of neonicotinoids on honeybees that forage from appropriately treated plants, both on their brood and on their honey and wax. They may also increase the severity of existing bee diseases. Not only that, but these are chemicals which persist for a long while and can leach into soil and water, effects which have not been adequately assessed. And although some work has been done on the obliging honeybee, we know very little about how neonics affect other pollinators and invertebrates generally. This points to a huge and ghastly loophole in the licencing process here, and common sense suggests that there should be an immediate precautionary ban on neonics until more work on their impact has been done. This is the position that many bee folk agree on as well as organizations like Buglife, and is my own. I am hopeful it will happen, and that DEFRA’s approval process is radically over-hauled.

Unfortunately, this is where things start going pear-shaped. In a way it would be just fab if, as the Avaaz website says, neonics were the sole reason why honeybees, bumblebees and (we can only imagine because we have no clue) solitary bees are enduring such dreadful declines. They are currently building an online campaign against the use of neonics on the premise that:

Quietly, globally, billions of bees are being killed off threatening our crops and food. But a global ban of one group of pesticides could save bees from extinction.

Sadly this is just – well – wrong. It’s much, much more complicated. As the Bumblebee Conservation Trust notes:

by simplifying the issue and ignoring the importance of other factors in global bee declines the campaign risks undermining ongoing conservation efforts. Studies suggest that the causes of bee declines differ between species and include factors such as disease, habitat loss, pesticides, inbreeding, climate change and others.

I personally have a bee in my bonnet about the way honeybees are kept commercially in the U.S., which I think many would accept as one cause of their problems under “others”, but that’s a tiny part of the big picture.

It’s an interesting tale in itself, but also because it seems to me to be symptomatic of many of the things I’ve come across in my recent foray into the world of conservation:
1. Media’s role in popularizing and misrepresenting a complicated issue.
2. Mistrust and misunderstanding of scientists and science.
3. Belief in conspiracy rather than cock-up.
4. Polarization of reasonable opinion by being belligerent in tone and selective in substance.
5. A denial of the (unfortunate) existence of consumerism. Why do farmers use the most effective pesticides on offer, properly tested or not?

It also strikes me that many of us have a deep rooted psychological need for bogeymen to blame for what’s going wrong out there. It would be fantastic if Bayer were exclusively responsible for the decimation in pollinator numbers we are witnessing. We could legislate against their products and hit them with an even bigger fine than BP’s. But it’s not Bayer that’s ultimately responsible for this, any more than it was BP for the oil spill in the Gulf. It’s all of us. And it’s easy to do something about it.