LONDON — Graham Saunders is 68 now, but he has been keeping bees in the Cotswold countryside since he was young boy. His father was the local beekeeper and would collect swarms that emerged in the local villages and transfer the bees to hives near his wheelwright workshop.
At that time, summer brought bee swarms on an almost daily basis. Swarms happen when a new queen bee leaves the hive with a large group of worker bees in search of a new place to call home. “In the ’60s and ’70s, I was going to three or four swarms a week in the summer,” said Saunders. “This whole year I have collected two.”
It is the same story across the world; the bees are dying. And it’s not just the bees but other insects, like beetles, moths, hover flies and wasps, that pollinate the crops that are vital for human nourishment.
In the old days, such insects would find forage in the traditional hay meadows, which were full of wild flowers, and from the clover blossoms that grew beneath the wheat. These insect pollinators favor nectar-rich blooms, with petals that splayed outwards, allowing them to land with ease inside the flower. The insects collect pollen on their bodies and transfer that pollen from the anther to the stigma of the flower. In that way, they pollinate the plants.
Saunders said that he has seen the bees and other insects start to disappear from his little corner of the Cotswold countryside over the past century. According to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, when Saunders’ father was a young man, in the 1930s and ’40s, the U.K. had 98 percent more flower-rich grassland than it does today. The advent of more intensive methods of farming and land-use changes have led to the dramatic loss of sources of forage for bees and other insect pollinators.
One change Saunders remembers occurred in the ’50s and ’60s, when farmers started dusting their rapeseed crops with pesticides from the backs of their tractors. “I saw the bees come home to my village, Sherborne, and just drop dead in front of the hive. The next day the whole colony was dead. At the time, it made national news,” Saunders said.
Authorities created rules to prevent farmers from spraying their crops between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., when most pollinators would be out foraging among the wild flowers for food. However, the bees and other insects have continued to decline. In 2013, the European Union instituted a three-year ban on some neonicotinoid pesticides that have been linked to increased bee mortality.
Increasingly, the British government is taking notice, too, and has a formulated a plan of action that aims to save the country’s bees and other insect pollinators. In March 2014, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs held a consultation to propose a national bee strategy concerning the future of Britain’s bees and other insect pollinators, which have been threatened since pesticide use in farming became routine and wildflower banks have been lost to more intensive land use.
The value of insect pollinators to the economy is significant; DEFRA estimates that the work they do is worth hundreds of billions of dollars. While most calorie crops are wind-pollinated, a number of the most popular fruits and vegetables, like strawberries, cucumbers and tomatoes, depend heavily on insect pollinators. In short, their free labor helps provide the nourishing foods that are crucial to our diet.
The proposed strategy is the result of a consultation that included contributions from supermarkets, government bodies, farming groups, the fertiliser and pesticide industries and beekeepers’ associations. The strategy identifies three main outcomes that stand as desirable goals for all government policies. According to the plan, Britain needs “diverse and flower-rich habitats to support our pollinators on farmland and public land, in towns, cities and gardens, along transport networks and on land surrounding other infrastructure such as water treatment works and flood defences; healthy bees and other pollinators to support pollination services; enhanced awareness across a wide range of businesses, other organisations and the public of the essential needs of pollinators and actions they can take to support them.”
DEFRA has suggested five steps that everyone can take to create and improve pollinator-friendly habitats. These include growing more nectar-rich and pollen-rich plants and trees; leaving patches of land to grow wild; mowing the grass less frequently; avoiding disruption of nesting or hibernating insects; and using pesticides with consideration and moderation.
General awareness of the value of pollinators will be enhanced by the creation of a “Call to Action” package between 2014 and 2015. It will concentrate on simple measures that can be taken to provide the basic needs of insect pollinators, like planting more flowering plants that can serve as good forage for them. The London Beekeepers’ Association, for instance, warns against large, colorful hybrid flowers that are bred for appearance and contain limited nectar. It finds that a mix of native and non-native species prolongs the flowering season, giving pollinating insects plenty of forage to see them through the year.
The DEFRA strategy also includes doing more research into how pesticides are affecting the bees and other insects—research that will be funded in part by the pesticide manufacturers themselves.
Critics in the government, especially Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, fear that by allowing the pesticide industry to fund the research, at least in part, the government is opening the door for those companies to unduly influence the outcome of the research.
Experience has shown that pesticide and agro-chemical companies often lobby the government to weaken rules that regulate their products. In June, the Swiss agribusiness Syngenta, which produces some of the neonicotinoid pesticides banned by the EU, applied for an exemption in the U.K. It argued that the ban did not acknowlege the complexity of the health issues facing bee populations and that neonicotinoids do not pose as much of a threat as is typically assigned to them. Syngenta used its own researchers to back its claims. According to its website, “Syngenta research has found no risk to bee colonies exposed to neonicotinoid-treated crops, particularly oilseed rape and maize, even when exposed for several years.”
Nonetheless, a growing body of evidence from researchers around the world has shown that neonicotinoids do indeed have a negative effect on bee populations. A few weeks after requesting the exemption, Syngenta withdrew its application.
The Environmental Audit Committee is demanding that all research be independent. “When it comes to research on pesticides, DEFRA is content to let the manufacturers fund the work,” said committee Chair Joan Walley. “This testifies to a loss of environmental protection capacity in the department responsible for it. If the research is to command public confidence, independent controls need to be maintained at every step. Unlike other research funded by pesticide companies, these studies also need to be peer-reviewed and published in full.”
Lewis Bartlett, an ecologist studying honeybees at the University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation, said he was concerned by the involvement of the chemical industry.
“Their [DEFRA] current proposal to have pesticide research led by the industry, particularly for neonicotinoids, is ludicrous,” he said. “Given the appalling history of these companies with respect to publishing their study data in publicly available, peer-reviewed journals, this decision by DEFRA smacks of corporate appeasement and scientific naiveté.”
He remains skeptical that DEFRA’s plan will have the teeth needed to be effective. “The draft strategy report lacks detail and direction. Most of the goals are very broad and ill-defined in relation to integrated pest management, which DEFRA outlines with as little specificity as possible and omits the crucial emphasis on pesticides as a last resort,” Bartlett said.
According to recent research, organic farming may be the best path for food producers with an interest in boosting pollinator populations. Researchers from the University of Oxford have found that organic farms have around a third more species of wildlife than their non-organic counterparts. For insect pollinators, the difference between the farming methods is even more marked, with 50 percent more pollinating species on organic land. The Oxford researchers asserted in a report that “organic methods could undoubtedly play a major role in halting the continued loss of diversity from industrialised nations.”
Emma Hockridge, head of policy at the Soil Association, the U.K.’s organic certification body, is unequivocal on the subject. “Our food systems are being threatened by the declines of bees and other pollinators necessary for a third of the food that we eat. This research shows there is a clear solution for pollinators with a known outcome: support organic farming and we can have 50 percent more species of pollinators in our countryside,” she said.
The clearest message from DEFRA’s report is that immediate action is necessary. The solution, it says, is not just minimizing the use of pesticides and herbicides but also supporting diverse food sources for our insect pollinator helpers by bringing back wildflower meadows and filling the roundabouts with nectar-rich forage.
According to Saunders, the next in line to the British throne is setting a good example: “Prince Charles has got the right idea on this one—planting vast acreages of traditional hay meadows.”
Saunders urges everyone to follow in Charles’ footseps and get planting. “It is vital to reduce our dependence on pesticides, but we must not forget that bees need more flowers, nectar-producing flowers. Just small areas would help,” he said, adding that every little strip of wildflowers can help. And more than that, he sees a duty that we owe to our insect friends who do so much for us—to provide new refuges for them to adapt to this changing world.