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Be Afraid, Bees, Be Very Afraid: UK Lifts Ban on Pesticide Linked to Their Decline

For now, two types of neonicotinoid pesticides will be allowed on a small portion of crops, even though researchers believe they are contributing culprits to global bee death.
Imagen vía Flickr Creative Commons

Against massive opposition from both scientists and the public, the UK has temporarily lifted a European Union ban on a certain type of pesticide suspected of killing bees.

For now, two types of neonicotinoid pesticides will be allowed, even though researchers believe they are contributing culprits to global bee death and half a million people have signed an online petition denouncing the move. The lift of the ban will last four months.


The UK's allowance of the notorious pesticides comes after repeated calls from farmers for their emergency use. The ban on neonicotinoids, known by the shorthand neonics, has led to the decimation of crops by flea beetles in Britain.

In response to the lifting of the ban for 120 days over an area of 30,000 hectares, or 5 percent of England's oilseed rape crop, the UK's National Farmers Union said the permission slip wasn't nearly enough.

"Flea beetle threat is a widespread problem on a national scale and the extremely limited nature of this authorization is unfortunately not going to help the vast majority of farmers in need of protection," NFU vice-president Guy Smith said in a statement.

Globally, the bee population has declined dramatically, and scientists believe neonics are contributing to the problem. Research has shown that repeated exposure to neonics can impair a bee's brain, making it easier for them to get lost.

In a recent study out of the University of Dundee in the UK, researchers found that absorption of a neonic pesticide acutely broke down the mitochondria in bees' brain cells. Bee colonies exposed to the pesticide showed a 55 percent reduction in the number of live bees, their research found.

"Our research demonstrates beyond doubt that the level of neonicotinoids generally accepted as the average level present in the wild causes brain dysfunction and colonies to perform poorly when consumed by bumblebees," Chris Connolly, co-author of the study, told the nonprofit organization Beyond Pesticides.


"This is not proof that neonicotinoids are solely responsible for the decline in insect pollinators, but a clear linear relationship is now established," he continued.

Another new study shows neonics can poison beneficial predatory insects — for example, beetles that eat crop-ruining slugs — which could mean the pesticides are even more devastating than previously thought.

Related: Ontario Moves to Restrict Bee-Killing Pesticide Used in Farming 

The word "pesticide" may conjure images of planes spraying crops, but neonicotinoids are actually inside the plants already.

Neonicotinoid use as an insecticide has exploded since the 1990s. The pesticide has been compared to DDT, which was first used against insect-spread malaria and typhus in the 1940s. After its negative environmental effects became widely known in the 1960s, developed countries stopped using it on crops. It's now banned in 34 countries, including the US, Canada, and the UK.

DDT is still used as an indoor insecticide in African nations where malaria is a problem.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont