Wednesday, May 1, 2013

It's better to BEE careful!

Bees and other pollinating insects are responsible for pollinating a whole range of agricultural crops, especially fruits and vegetables, many of which will fail in the absence adequate pollination. Consequently, the value of bees is much more than the honey they produce, and is monetarily estimated in many billions of euros in Europe alone, where one third of our foodcomes from plants pollinated by insects.

The declination of bee populations have been reported for some time now, attributed to many factors including mobile phone networks, parasites, diseases and now a group of agricultural chemicals called neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoid insecticides have been increasingly used in agriculture in the recent past. Neonicotinoids can be applied as seed coatings when crops are being sown, and the emerging seedling takes up the insecticide, and in many cases retain its properties right through its flowering period and until harvest. This kept pests at bay with minimum difficulty for farmers, but now it seems, with possible implications for pollinating insects.

Throughout the research and development stage, agricultural companies released data indicating that neonicotinoids were safe in relation to the bee population. However, it is now known that while the insecticide does not kill the bee, it does cause them to become disorientated and hence can’t find their way back to the hive. In addition, new data also shows that synergistic effects with a commonly used group of fungicides can render the neonicotinoids much more poisonous than originally thought.

But, there’s a snag in the line- the data is not conclusive and a ban to these chemicals will certainly cause difficulty for farmers- so what is to be done?

This is a perfect example of a time when it’s better to “play it safe”, and that’s what the European Commission is going to do. Despite fierce lobbying by the chemicals industry and opposition by countries including Britain, 15 of the 27 member states voted for a two-year restriction on neonicotinoid insecticides. This ban will allow time to determine whether bee populations will stabilise and recover- if this is the case, it would be a fairly conclusive indication as to whether neonicotinoids are at the root of the problem of honey bee decline and further action can be taken from there on out.

To follow the story as it develops, see here:

Image courtesy of K.L. Heong

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