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Role of pesticides in bee decline

Role of pesticides in bee decline - Scientists call for evidence-driven debate

Scientists call for evidence-driven debate

An international panel of scientists including Professor Lin Field from Rothamsted Research, which receives strategic funding from the BBSRC, is today calling for an evidence-driven debate over whether a widely used type of insecticide is to blame for declines in bees and other insect pollinators.

An EU ban on certain neonicotinoid insecticides was introduced in December 2013 because of fears they are harming pollinating insects.  Pollination by insects is critical for many crops and for wild plants but at the same time neonicotinoids are one of the most effective insecticides used by farmers. Potential tensions amongst the agricultural and environmental consequences of neonicotinoid use have made this topic one of the most controversial involving science and policy.

A restatement of the scientific evidence on neonicotinoids has today been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The restatement, from a group of nine scientists led by Professor Charles Godfray and Professor Angela McLean of the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University, clarifies the scientific evidence available on neonicotinoids, to enable different stakeholders to develop coherent policy and practice recommendations.

One of the authors Professor Lin Field from Rothamsted Research said "It was a pleasure to work with my co-authors who all have diverse expertises, relevant to the debate over the potential effects of neonicotinoids on pollinators, but all wanted to look at evidence rather than opinion. It is essential that we base decisions in this important area on science, so that we find the best way forward to ensure both pollinator success and good crop protection strategies for food production."

Professor Charles Godfray said: “Pollinators are clearly exposed to neonicotinoid insecticides, but seldom to lethal doses, and we need a better understanding of the consequences of realistic sub-lethal doses to the insect individual, bee colony and pollinator population.”

Professor Angela McLean added; “A major question to be addressed is what farmers will do now that they face restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids. Will they switch to crops that need less insecticide treatment or might they apply older but more dangerous chemicals?”

The restatement describes how much insecticide is present in a treated plant and how much is consumed by pollinators. It goes on to summarise how neonicotinoids affect individual bees and other pollinators, and the consequences at the colony and population levels.

In reaction to this study, Professor Ian Boyd, Chief Scientific Advisor at Defra said: “It is essential that policies on the use of pesticides are built on sound scientific evidence.  This paper provides an independent assessment of this subject which will provide clarity and authority in order to help people make more informed choices."

Paul de Zylva, from Friends of the Earth, commented: “This project is an important step toward much needed public and scientific debate and scrutiny. The Government should support and fund both more open science and safer ways to grow crops as part of its National Pollinator Strategy due in July.”

Key facts:

  • Since their introduction in the 1990s, the use of neonicotinoids has expanded so that today they comprise about 30% by value of the global insecticide market
  • Insects are important for pollinating many UK crops, including strawberry, raspberry, apple, pear, plum, tomato and many vegetables.
  • The populations of both managed honeybees and wild pollinators were declining before the widespread use of neonicotinoids, with habitat change and honeybee disease thought to be particularly important causes.
  • A series of experiments have raised the possibility that widespread neonicotinoid use may exacerbate pollinator decline, though other studies find fewer effects of the insecticide.

Contacts

Notes to Editors

  • The paper (Proc. R. Soc. B 281: 20150558) and electronic supplementary material is open access and available here http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/lookup/doi/10.1098/rspb.2014.0558. A concatenated version can be downloaded at http://www.futureoffood.ox.ac.uk/news/neonics.
  • This summary is the second in a planned series of “restatements”, part of a project led by Professors Angela McLean & Charles Godfray from the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford. They are designed to help policy-makers access scientific evidence in controversial topics. To do this, a group of respected scientists who represent the range of views on a particular topic are convened. They together write the “restatement” of the evidence.  The restatement is a series of paragraphs designed to be: concise and jargon-free, as policy neutral as possible, and each assigned a score denoting the strength and nature of the underlying evidence. Before publication each restatement is sent to a large number of interested parties and the group prepares the final version in the light of their comments.
  • Also taking part in the project were: Tjeerd Blacquière from Wageningen University and Research Centre, the Netherlands; Linda Field from Rothamsted Research; Rosemary Hails and Adam Vanbergen from the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology; Gillian Petrokofsky from Oxford University; Simon Potts from Reading University and Nigel Raine from the University of Guelph, Canada.
  • The EU has banned the use of three types of neonicotinoids on crops attractive to bees for a minimum of two years.
  • Defra is the UK’s Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

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For further information, please contact:
Professor Angela Karp (comms@rothamsted.ac.uk), Tel: +44 (0) 1582 938 855

About Rothamsted Research

We are the longest running agricultural research station in the world, providing cutting-edge science and innovation for over 170 years. Our mission is to deliver the knowledge and new practices to increase crop productivity and quality and to develop environmentally sustainable solutions for food and energy production.

Our strength lies in the integrated, multidisciplinary approach to research in plant, insect and soil science.
Rothamsted Research is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)

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BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, BBSRC invested £473M in world-class bioscience, people and research infrastructure in 2015-16. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

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