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.


4 thoughts on “Bees

  1. Lise

    “…organic food which produces up to 30% less food…” – Perhaps one of the reasons for this is because organically grown food has not yet had a chance to become mainstream. Organic farming on a more local basis (with smaller farms) would perhaps be one way to tackle this. Problem: many smaller farms have been swallowed by larger production facilities. Give organic farming time to ‘sift back down to a more local level’ and/or become more rationalized and mainstream and I think you would see more profitable numbers. I could, of course, just be an old hippie with rose-colored glasses, but I think the 30% less food yield is a bit misleading in some respects.

  2. Colin Post author

    Some organic yields are pretty close to conventional ones, so you can cherry pick some good data. (That doesn’t actually include cherries though, which don’t do well without pesticides.) But it is certainly true that for staples like cereal crops organic techniques give lower amounts of food for the same amount of land and as these are the things we eat most of and depend on, those are the most important ones. If we switched to more local production that would no doubt change things radically. It is mainly to keep options like that open that I think organic farming should be supported. When it comes to producing food an open mind is a good thing to have. As it stands there are two main approaches, conventional and organic. Organic is relatively wasteful but does keep another strand open with different varieties and supporting some research that looks at things in a different way. The third way is hydroponics. This is tiny, but has huge potential. Our mutual neighbours the Dutch dominate the world trade in cut flowers by using hydroponics despite having very little land to spare. The more I think about that the more amazed I am by it. Hydroponics uses almost no pesticides but relies heavily on fertilisers – so very different from the more mainstream approaches. If we are going to feed a few more billion people I think we need to look at as many different ways of producing nutrition as we can think of.

  3. Jean

    I used to have bees but one day they just vanished.
    Here one day, gone the next.
    I contacted my local bee association and they said send some dead bees so they could be analysed, but there weren’t any. No smell in the hive of anything untoward, just gone.
    If they had swarmed, there would have been approx 50% left and evidence of queen cells but there was nothing, a complete mystery.
    Except, my neighbour used a common pesticide on his flowers and plants, It was a Neonicitinoid As he showed me the container. He had used at least 6 of the smaller containers in the month prior to the bees disappearance
    I live in a small village in rural east Anglian and am surrounded by various crops, the predominant one being rapeseed which can now be grown all year round with the new winter varieties.
    I have spoken with other ex beekeepers and it seems we have a problem which has really only surfaced in the last 3 years with increasing numbers of bees vacating their hives.
    They leave all the honey so as long as you get to it before the wasps you can at least have a good harvest
    It really is eerie walking up to a hive and realising that it is silent
    Don’t know what to conclude from this but something is amiss.
    On another note, I have grown my tomatoes in a hydroponics system for the last 2 years in a polytunnel and have had very successful crops and am thinking this year to try the system on peas and lettuce

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