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The end of the birds and the bees?

News Section Icon Published 18/06/2013


We all know that smoking kills, but did you know that a nicotine-based substance is lethal to bees, too? Global bee populations are in freefall, and one of the main reasons is the rise of neonicotinoid pesticides on crops. Factory farming is partly to blame, driving a relentless demand for animal feed. We explore the buzz around this story.

To bee, or not to bee

Bees are a crucial part of a healthy ecosystem. They pollinate everything from crops to fruits to wildflowers. A third of the world’s crops are said to be fertilised by insects and other pollinators1.

But the bee is in crisis. In recent decades, there has been a steep decline in numbers of both wild and domestic bees. Several species have been completely wiped out.

There are a number of possible explanations for this, but one seems to stand out from the rest. According to The Independent, more than 30 separate scientific studies suggest that bees are suffering due to the use of neonicotinoids on crops2. These potent pesticides, which saturate every fibre of the plant, are extremely toxic to insects – so much so, in fact, that treated crops have been dubbed “poison factories” by the media.

Farming gone awry

Intensive agriculture has a great deal to answer for when it comes to the beleaguered bee. It was factory farming that created the need for vast quantities of homogenised animal feed in the first place. Under pressure to improve the efficiency of crop production, farmers were encouraged to create bigger fields and cultivate monocultures – just one or two crop varieties grown across large areas.


The impact of this shift in farming methods has been huge. As fields expanded, miles of hedgerows and acres of wildflower meadows were lost, along with the varied habitats that bees – and other species of insects, birds and mammals – need to survive. Nectar became scarce and pollinators found it harder to travel between the isolated pockets of hospitable land, once connected by hedgerows3.

Then, as if life under these new conditions wasn’t hard enough for bees, along came neonicotinoids, or “neonics”, as they’re known – considered by many to be the death knell for the humble bumblebee.

Our brutally restructured agricultural system has brought about the heavy use of these pesticides. Not only have pests adapted to the uniform environment that surrounds them, acre after acre, year after year, but fewer hedgerows means that there are fewer natural predators to keep pests in check. And to make a bad situation worse, there’s no place for crop rotation in the industrial-farming model; among its many benefits, this practice is a natural method of pest control, often driving the invaders away as crops change4.

Friends of the Earth’s Head of Campaigns, Andrew Pendleton, told The Telegraph: We are starving bees and we are poisoning them. Nobody is really looking after them. We can’t do without them. They are massively important to the fabric of life itself."5

Just as worrying, a recent study in the Journal of Applied Ecology (cited in The Telegraph6), claims that neonics can accumulate in soil and water, potentially harming other wildlife, including small mammals and birds.

Taking the sting out of things

Luckily for bees (and other wildlife), change is afoot. From December 2013, the use of three major neonics on crops that are attractive to bees and other pollinators will be banned in the EU. Although only 15 of the 27 member states voted in favour of the ban (some say the science behind the proposal is inconclusive), a two-year precautionary restriction will be put in place. It’s a great step forward.

The EU Health Commissioner, Tonio Borg, said: "I pledge to do my utmost to ensure that our bees, which are so vital to our ecosystem and contribute over 22bn Euros (£18.5bn; $29bn) annually to European agriculture, are protected."7

Hope for the future

The impact of the ban will be reviewed after two years. And if the new data confirms our worst fears – that neonics are indeed responsible for the collapse of bee colonies all over the world – then policy-makers must surely act to prevent irreversible damage.

So whether it’s a pig stuck in a factory farm or a wild bee that’s been destroyed by lethal chemicals, the message is resounding: intensive farming, at its most extreme, is a senseless model of food production with profound implications for our planet and its inhabitants. Perhaps Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, put it best when he said: "Human beings have fabricated the illusion that in the 21st century they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature... Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less, dependent on nature's services..."8

Read our blog about The Pig Idea to see one example of a more sustainable way of feeding livestock.



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