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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.