The BBKA and Pesticides.
The practice of the BBKA of endorsing certain pesticide products as being “bee-friendly”, and receiving donations from the pharmaceutical companies in return, is again coming under attack.
The matter is on the agenda for the next Annual Delegates’ Meeting at Stoneleigh in January, and is therefore up for discussion at the next Committee meeting of the CBKA on December 6th. As usual the situation is far more complicated than some people with radical views would have us believe. I have been trying to sort out the wood from the trees, and I am sharing with you my findings so far. If I am wrong in anything I have stated, I would welcome a correction.
There is a lot of information (as usual, rather too much!) on the internet. Several links were sent out with the October E-News. I can supply website addresses to any member who requests them.
The latest criticism of the BBKA policy has arisen following scares to do with neo-nicotinoid pesticides, which have led to bee-deaths on the continent, and which are produced by Bayer – one of the firms from which BBKA receives donations.
There are two main neo-nicotinoids on the market in the UK – Imidacloprid (sold under various names: Gaucho, Admire, Confidor and Winner).and Clothianidin.
Clothianidin killed many colonies in South-west Germany this summer when it was used as a maize seed-dressing in a high concentration. The pesticide dust had not been fixed effectively to the seeds and blew off when they were sown, polluting the surrounding countryside. According to official figures, 11,500 colonies were damaged by this poisoning episode. As a result, the German Government suspended the registration of eight neo-nicotinoid pesticide seed-treatment products used for oilseed rape and maize.
Imidacloprid killed huge numbers of bees in France between 1996 and 2000, after which it was banned by the French Government for use on sunflowers. In Canada it is believed that clover and OSR crops have sub-lethal residues (picked up from the soil) of imidacloprid in the pollen and nectar which are causing the slow death of colonies. Imidacloprid is still legal in the USA, and is now apparently being used as a seed-dressing for sugar beet in the UK.
Earlier this year there was a scare caused by the allegation that beet-sugar (which you might use as a feed for your bees) was contaminated by neo-nicotinoid pesticides which had been applied to the beet crop. Many beekeepers went off in search of cane sugar, even though we have no guarantee (especially since cane sugar is produced in far-off countries) that this is any safer. “Ambrosia” is basically corn syrup, made from maize, which is one of the crops most heavily treated with pesticides, so that is just as likely to be contaminated.
The following statement by British Sugar would seem to clear up the matter.
"UK sugar beet is not sprayed with any neo-nicotinoid pesticide and none are approved for such use. Sugar-beet is not a flowering plant and hence does not attract bees. Neo-nicotinoid pesticides are approved for use in the protective seed-coating used to aid plant-germination and early growth. The coating degrades naturally in the soil and beet-plant, and is inactive by May when the plant becomes established. Home-produced sugar is subject to a comprehensive residue testing programme and no neo-nicotinoid pesticides have been detected in British sugar. Therefore home-produced beet-sugar poses no risk to bees.” This all sounds quite plausible. Sugar beet can yield 50t/ha, and about 17% of that weight will end up as sugar. The amount of pesticide that can be applied to seed is infinitesimal compared with that sort of harvest volume. Studies have shown that only 0.1% of the imidacloprid applied as a seed dressing ends up in the root – where the sugar comes from.
I have compiled some facts about neo-nicotinoids.
Neo-nicotinoid pesticides are what are called “systemic”, which means that they are absorbed into every cell of the plant, including, logically, nectar and pollen. The question is whether they would be present in a sufficient concentration to harm bees feeding on this nectar or pollen. No-one is supplying an impartial, reliable answer to this question at the moment.
Imidacloprid is a powerful neurotoxin, lethal to bees in doses as small as five parts per billion; at lower doses, it may not kill the bees outright, but is thought to lead to worker bees neglecting to feed larvae, and to a breakdown of the bees' navigational abilities – it is therefore thought by some to be a possible contributory factor in CCD.
Imidacloprid is persistent in plant cells and in the soil (half-life in soil under aerobic conditions of up to 3 years), where it kills all insects and earthworms, and it accumulates, season on season, until it reaches a 'stable' level, assumed by some authorities to be something like 10 parts per billion. It also rapidly contaminates ground water.
In a study undertaken as long ago as 1996, sugar beet plants sown from imidacloprid-treated seeds were tested for pesticide content in leaves and roots. 21 days after application a concentration of 15.2 micrograms per gram of fresh plant was found. 97 days after sowing this had fallen to 0.5 micro-grams per gram. In sugar-beet, which is not allowed to flower, these figures are unimportant. What they would mean in the nectar or pollen of a honey-bee forage-plant, however, I still can’t tell. The plant metabolises the imidacloprid, and this metabolite is a more effective insecticide than the original compound, explaining the prolonged effectiveness against aphids—which is an attribute attractive to growers. (2)
According to a recent report, the remains of spray poisons have been found in 49% of the investigated fruit, vegetables and corn-products – representing an increase of 20% over the last five years. For the first time traces of imidacloprid were found in food for human consumption.(3)
The UK Pesticides Safety Directorate has issued the following statement.
We are aware of the concerns in some other Member States about the use of certain seed treatments containing clothianidin and imidacloprid. However, we are not aware of any problem in the UK related to any seed treatments and bees. There have not been any incidents reported to the Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme (WIIS) to date which could be connected to the use of seed treatment. Given the vigilance of beekeepers, it is highly unlikely that had there been any incidents they would have gone unnoticed.
Of the three active substances which are mentioned, only imidacloprid is approved for treatment of oilseed rape seed and clothianidin for maize seed. This is the first year in which treatment of maize seed with clothianidin has been approved in the UK. We note that in the incidents in Germany the treatment was being used at a very high rate (125 g.a.s/ha) in an attempt to control Diabrotica. In the UK it is approved at a maximum rate of 60 g.a.s./ha on maize.
We will, of course, keep a close watch on the situation, but currently have no concerns that use of these products according to the conditions of approval will cause a risk to bees in the UK.
This statement is not as reassuring as it might sound. The fact that beekeepers have not reported a problem does not prove that a problem does not exist. It is very difficult for beekeepers (with our very limited resources) to identify the cause of a dwindling or loss of our bees, particularly when the amount of pesticide which could cause a problem would be of the magnitude of one microgram per 100g – that means one millionth of a gram per 1000 bees.
The BBKA does not endorse any neo-nicotinoid pesticide, but it has been criticised by some French and German beekeepers for not joining their associations in calls for a ban on neo-nicotinoids. The Greek BKA has just issued a call on all European beekeeping associations to press for a Europe-wide ban on these pesticides.
Mike Harris, general secretary of the British Bee Keepers Association, is quoted as saying: “Colony Collapse Disorder is caused by the varroa parasite. Pesticides are a separate problem - and in the UK, at least, neo-nicotinoids are not normally used in concentrations harmful to bees."
However, pesticides were under discussion at a recent symposium on CCD at the University of Warwick as a possible contributory factor in CCD. (1) It has to be said here that the pesticides most under suspicion are those used by beekeepers against varroa! However, the interaction (synergy) between various pesticides is still under consideration as a contributory factor.
The BBKA accepts donations from Bayer, Syngenta and other companies, totalling £13,000 per annum, no one company contributing more than £5000. Martin Smith, the BBKA Chairman, issued the following statement on the policy.
“The policy of the BBKA, established some years ago and endorsed by its membership at an Annual Delegates Meeting, is one of constructive engagement with such companies to ensure that the products are sold with the correct instructions to farmers in relation to when and how to spray to ensure that honey bees are not affected.
“Members of the BBKA Technical Committee meet the relevant companies periodically to ensure that we are aware of products coming onto the market, and discuss their possible effect on honey-bees. We review the products we already endorse in the light of any new evidence that may become available and ensure that the instructions to farmers remain pertinent. We also provide the companies with advice about the habits of honey-bees to assist in their formulation of new products.”
There are two strands to the question of the BBKA’s involvement with pharmaceutical companies.
1) Should the BBKA hold meetings with such companies, at which new products and their methods of use are discussed, leading to the BBKA either approving them as “bee-friendly” or withholding this approval? The BBKA says that, without the promise of an endorsement, there would be no incentive for the companies to meet with the BBKA, and we would then lose our leverage on them in terms of their marketing and usage instructions.
2) Whether or not it holds discussions with such companies, should the BBKA accept donations from them? As with politicians, this can at least be seen to reduce the BBKA’s independence, and lessen its voice in combating misuse/overuse of chemicals in the environment. STOP PRESS! I have just learned that the BBKA executive is proposing to the ADM that the donations should be put into a research fund, rather than into the BBKA’s coffers, which would necessitate a £1 rise in membership fees.
I hope this will help members to make up their minds on this very complicated question, and that you will have enough time to discuss this with your representatives before the committee meeting, or at least before the ADM in January.
(1) Dennis van Engelsdorp (Pennsylvania State Apiarist) at the CCD Seminar of the Society for Invertebrate Pathology at the University of Warwick 2008. Beekeeping magazine Sept. 08, p. 193.
(2) From a paper presented to a joint meeting of the SCI Pesticides Group and the Royal Society of Chemistry in London, 9th December 1996 (1998, vol 52, no.2, pp 165-188 (25 ref.( pp. 97-103)
(3) from a Danish broadsheet newspaper: Jyllands Post, and Politiken, 16th October 2008, with thanks to David Ashton for the translation.
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