I’d like to spend more time following the problem with the decline in bee numbers. It is a knotty one, with a lot of confusing and contradictory information. The problem has been encountered around the world, but a bit unevenly. Even within countries the effect has been mixed. For instance beekeepers in the London area have not reported too many problems while ones in more agricultural areas have seen the loss of quite a lot of hives.
I haven’t been able to keep up with all the twists and turns of this one, but recent reports seem to have fingered the problem. The culprit may well be a fairly new family of pesticides called the neonicotinoids. These are synthetic analogues of naturally occurring pesticides found in amongst other things, tobacco. I don’t know how much their natural heritage influenced the company that developed and marketed them. But it is a good counter-example to the idea that things that are natural are intrinsically more safe than things that aren’t.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Pesticides are regulated pretty tightly and rightly so. They are always going to be a class of chemicals with the potential to cause problems. So there us plenty of data on the toxicity of the neonicotinoids available. Nonetheless it looks like something nobody anticipated has happened now that they have been deployed in the actual environment. It isn’t that they are particularly toxic to the bees. The problem is that they have a subtle effect on their behaviour. This isn’t harmful to individual insects but can bring about catastrophic problems for the whole hive. Bees being social insects rely on being able to communicate clearly with one another, and when this breaks down it can sometimes lead to the whole structure of the hive collapsing.
(Quick proviso – I am deriving all this from main stream media and they tend to get things wrong a lot, but it sounds plausible enough.)
There are some lessons I draw from this. For a start, being natural doesn’t equate to being safe. Something that is found in plants is just as likely to give problems as something totally man-made.
Also it is always necessary to keep your eyes open and your brain engaged. Just because something has got through a battery of tests doesn’t mean you are necessarily safe. Something nobody anticipated can still catch you out once it gets out into the complex real world. Legislation is always a blunt tool to ensure safety.
But while we need to use our heads, we can’t bury them in the sand. We need to use pesticides if we want to feed the world’s growing population. And even if we didn’t have that pressure, any good environmentalist should be supporting any technology that increases yields per acre. There is nothing more damaging to wildlife than turning its habitat into farmland, so eating organic food which produces up to 30% less food is not a very green thing to do. I think that some organic farming should be carried out – when it comes to food production it is good to have alternatives for when the unexpected happens or to have different ways of doing things if the situations change. But for the foreseeable future conventional farming is the only practical way to feed the world. Only we have to be incredibly careful that the pesticides we use aren’t having unintended effects.
The reason for the decline in bee populations is becoming clearer. The lessons are becoming clear too.
I haven’t actually read it – it is behind a paywall – but this is the widely discussed paper that has tipped the debate about the cause of bee deaths towards the neonicotinoids.
Neonicotinoid Pesticide Reduces Bumble Bee Colony Growth and Queen Production Whitehorn, et al. Science 1215025
There has been a fair bit of coverage of it. Here is a typical one from the Guardian.