Pesticides blamed for bee decline

New formulas make colonies more prone to disease, research finds. Jonathan Owen reports

A A A

Compelling new evidence from the US government's top bee expert that modern pesticides may be a major cause of collapsing bee populations led to calls yesterday for the chemicals to be banned.

A study published in the current issue of the German science journal Naturwissenschaften, reveals how bees given minute doses of the widely used pesticide imidacloprid became more vulnerable to infections from a deadly parasite, nosema.

Bee experts described this as clear evidence of the role pesticides play in the plight of bees. Although research into the furry insects may seem like a very academic exercise, bees are vital to human survival. More than 70 of the 100 crops that provide 90 per cent of the world's food are pollinated by bees, and Albert Einstein once predicted that if bees died out, "man would have no more than four years to live."

The study, led by Dr Jeffrey Pettis, the head of the US Department of Agriculture's Bee Research Laboratory, says: "We believe that subtle interactions between pesticides and pathogens, such as demonstrated here, could be a major contributor to increased mortality of honey bee colonies worldwide."

Researchers found that bees deliberately exposed to minute amounts of the pesticide were, on average, three times as likely to become infected when exposed to a parasite called nosema as those that had not. The findings, which have taken more than three years to be published, add weight to concern that a new group of insecticides called neonicotinoids are behind a worldwide decline in honey bees, along with habitat and food loss, by making them more susceptible to disease.

Buglife, the invertebrate conservation charity, is calling for a ban on the controversial pesticides. Its director, Matt Shardlow, said yesterday: "The science is now clear, bees poisoned by neonicotinoid pesticides are much more likely to die from disease, gather less food and produce fewer new bees." He added: "Buglife's 2009 review of the science of environmental impacts from neonicotinoid pesticides showed that there was serious cause for concern. We called for a ban then, and as subsequent research has only added to concerns, including the revelation that neonicotinoids make bees prone to a diseased death, we are repeating our call for these toxins to be banned."

The Government needs to take urgent action, said Tim Lovett, of the British Beekeepers Association. He backs the findings of the new research: "Their conclusions are right ... here is some data that would appear to suggest links between widely used pesticides and pathogens."

Imidacloprid is the bestselling neonicotinoid made by Bayer CropScience, earning the company hundreds of millions of pounds a year. Neonicotinoids are "systemic" pesticides. Instead of spraying plants they are used to treat seeds – effectively becoming part of the plant, including the pollen and nectar that bees and other pollinating insects carry away. Concern over their effects on bees has led to restrictions on their use in Germany, Italy, France, and Slovenia.

Dr Julian Little, a spokesman for Bayer CropScience, sought to dismiss the new findings yesterday: "The key issue here is that Jeff Pettis's studies were carried out in the laboratory and not the open air." He added: "Bee health is really important, but focusing on pesticides diverts attention away from the very real issues of bee parasites and diseases – that is where Bayer is focusing its effort."

But Professor Simon Potts, of the Centre for Agri-Environmental Research at the University of Reading, disagrees: "Most reports of direct impacts of pesticides on bee mortality are usually due to the incorrect application of pesticides on farmland,," he said. "However, the Pettis study should be taken as a warning that we may need to look much more carefully at the indirect effect of pesticides."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital and print design a...

Recruitment Genius: Engineering Project Manager - Vehicle Design and Build

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Engineering Project Manager ...

Recruitment Genius: Network Support Engineer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading manufacturer and i...

Recruitment Genius: Document Controller

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Document Controller is required to join a le...

Day In a Page

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

Are you a 50-center?

Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

Hollywood's new diet trends

Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action