We can cram our city roof spaces with urban hives, drink enough mead to sate the entire (pre-Red Wedding) Game of Thrones cast, and produce as many commemorative postage stamps as we like, but there's no getting around the fact that bees are dying and we don't really know why.
Of course, we've figured out that global warming and habitat destruction aren't great for the winged critters, but not having a definitive reason for the beepocalypse makes it difficult to find an effective solution. It may even make us less responsive to the bee's plight. Speaking to FoodNavigator.com this week, Oxford researcher Leila Battison warned that "We are becoming immune to the many news reports of dropping polinator numbers. People want to be presented with a clear problem and definitive solution but it is hard to do when we don't yet fully understand the effects of our actions on insect populations."
But, in a rare piece of good news for the long-suffering bee, we could be a step closer to understanding these effects. A study published in the Scientific Reports journal this week has uncovered a new link between pesticide usage and honeybee colony decline.
Led by Giles Budge at the UK's Food and Environmental Research Agency and entomology professor Keith Delaplane at the University of Georgia, scientists examined large-scale pesticide usage and yield observations of oilseed rape fields in England and Wales, and compared this with data on honeybee losses between 2000 and 2010.
Their findings show that the total area of oilseed rape in the two countries increased from 293,378 hectares to 602,270 hectares during this period and with it, the use of imidacloprid—a neonicotinoid pesticide which is taken up by the plant and transported to its tissues, as opposed to just coating the surface.
The number of seeds treated with imidacloprid rose from less than 1 percent of the area planted with oilseed rape in 2000 to more than 75 percent in 2010. And—surprise, surprise—so too did honeybee colony losses.
The scientists did note that bee decline varied between region and low spring temperatures contributed to higher losses in Wales, but their research is the first countrywide field study to find evidence of a link between neonicotinoid pesticides and bee decline. It rather ominously states: "As long as acute toxins remain the basis of agricultural pest control practices, society will be forced to weigh the benefits of pesticides against their collateral damage."
It seems obvious that pumping plants with chemicals might not be so great for the insects attempting to pollinate them and the European Union (EU) imposed a two-year ban on neonicotinoid use in 2013, but the UK government has maintained that the pesticides do not harm bees, instead blaming population decline on wet summers and the parasitic varroa mite. It also temporarily overturned parts of the ban on 5 percent of England's oilseed rape crop last month.
It's a similar story in the US, where a third of soybeans planted in the country use neonicotinoids, and a 2012 US Department of Agriculture survey found they were in 30 percent of the country's cauliflower and 22 percent of its cherry tomatoes. In 2013, a congressional bill known as the "Saving America's Pollinators Act" would have seen neonicotinoids taken off the market until their safety was proven, but didn't make it out of committee.
While evidence of neonicotinoid pesticides' negative impact on bees seems pretty conclusive, the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which backed the UK's overturning of the EU pesticide ban and argues that the country's pesticide use has fallen dramatically, is less sure. In a statement to The Guardian, it said that the Scientific Reports study "provides evidence that neonicotinoid seed treatments can reduce the need for more pesticide use on crops" but that "large-scale field studies are needed to fully understand their effects on the environment."
DEFRA added that the EU is conducting a review into the science relating to neonicotinoid use and bees, but with the insects estimated to contribute around 22 billion Euros a year to European agriculture and $15 billion to crop farming in the US, now may be the time to act.