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Bee-Harming Pesticide Ban Lifted in UK

Updated: Nov 8, 2022

Jenny Donath explores how the decision to lift ban of bee-harming pesticides will negatively affect the bee population.

In 2018, bee-harming pesticides had been banned across Europe due to heavy scientific evidence regarding its harmful impacts on bees and other pollinators. Now, they are back in the UK.

Using Thiamethoxam

Since the UK’s exit from the European Union, the government has granted permission to use thiamethoxam, which is part of the neonicotinoid group, as an emergency use on sugar beet crops. The decision was made because of the potential risk of the spread of aphids, which can cause virus yellows disease and negatively impact the growth of sugar beets.

“The decision to approve an emergency authorisation was not taken lightly and based on robust scientific assessment. We evaluate the risks very carefully and only grant temporary emergency authorisations for restricted pesticides in special circumstances when strict requirements are met and there are no alternatives” (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs).

According to the government, the decision was made due to several reasons. There has been a 69% prediction of a potential virus spread this year, which has dramatically exceeded the 19% threshold. In 2020, there had already been crop losses as high as 80%. With 3,000 farmers growing sugar beets across the UK and 500 jobs in England depending on them, the government believes a temporary lifting of the ban is an appropriate measure.

However, the ban has caused outrage under campaigners and activists, who believe the government had enough time to invest in research to find alternative ways to deter pests in the farming industry. Even a temporary and strictly observed application has long-term effects on bee populations, which already suffer tremendous strain.

The Protection of Bees

Across the world, over 200,000 bee species face extinction, with more in decline because of human intervention, including farming practices, pesticides, environmental pollution, and climate change. Since 1900, 13 bee species have become extinct in the UK and another 35 species are threatened by extinction. On top of this, there is no UK law that protects bees. It is crucial to avoid any further harm to their lives and prevent any further negative impact on their environment.

Some might believe that bees only make honey, but their duties extend much further. As the main pollinator, bees pollinate about 80% of UK’s wildflowers as well as edible plants. They are overall essential to a functioning ecosystem, contributing to the growth of edible plants for humans and a rich plant diversity, like colourful flowers.

The economy relies on bees as well, since they pollinate crops, fruit, and vegetable patches. Without them, farmers would need to invest 1.8bn pounds on pollination substitutes; food production would become more expensive, and drastically increase in price.

Phasing out Pesticides

According to studies, pesticides are damaging to pollinator’s navigational abilities, their nervous system, and breeding success. Due to a decreased number of genes that detoxify chemicals, the receptor nicotinic acetylcholine easily binds with the specific enzymes to causes these detrimental effects.

Moreover, it is not only pollinators that face harm from the admission of pesticides on crops. Instead, a causal chain would be set into action, affecting biodiversity and other animal lives. Neonics are persistently applied throughout spring and are absorbed by all parts of the plant, with the chance of them reaching bodies of waters and damaging aquatic life, polluting natural habitats further.

The application of neonics opposes any of the government’s goals to protect nature. Craig Bennet, the environmental campaigner of The Wildlife Trusts, had said, “The Government has outlined ambitions to restore nature, promising to protect 30% of land by 2030 and reverse declines of precious wildlife - but at the same time, it is giving a green light to use a highly toxic chemical that could harm pollinating insects and pollute soils and rivers.”

Farmers will be banned from growing any flowering plants on fields, and surrounding areas, for 32 months after the use of the pesticide to avoid harming more bees. It is also unknown whether this time frame could be delayed by even more months if the UK government decided to allow pesticides in the coming years.

Stephanie Morred, who works for RSPB, stated that instead of allowing harmful pesticides, the government should support farmers in other ways than purposefully continuing to induce harm on the already declining natural environment: “Highly toxic pesticides like neonicotinoids have no place in a sustainable farming system.”

A five year old study showed that 86% of farmers could be able to improve the level of food production, or at least 94% of farmers not experiencing any losses, if pesticides were completely cut. Instead of using harmful short-term solutions, the government should find long-term options. Otherwise, the world, as we know it, would cease to exist without the help of bees.


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