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More Damning Evidence Against Neonics: Could it Sway an EU Vote?

Apr 22, 2015 05:11 PM EDT
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We've unfortunately got some bad news for bee lovers. Remember those harmful pesticides that are supposedly keeping our honeybees down? Well, it turns out they adversely affect other wild bee populations too - a revelation that may affect a historic EU decision slated for December.

The Trouble With Neonics

The pesticides in question are known as neonicotinoids, or "neonics," and are commonly used to coat the seeds of commercially sold plants and cash crops. They are often used as a sort of insurance policy, meaning that the coating is expected to prevent ground-dwelling pests from getting at newly planted seeds before they root and sprout.

However, there's one big catch. A study released back in June revealed how this coating was actually still leaving the deadly pesticide present in plants and their nectar years after the seed was initially treated, poisoning our bees in the process and directly leading to something called Colony Collapse Disease (CCD).

Studies prior to that named CCD - a disease that causes wintering bees to wake and suddenly abandon their hives in what looks like mass suicides - the likely primary cause of a major decline in US pollinator populations first noticed in 2006. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Flickr: Callum Hampson)

This revelation got the anti-neonic movement going, and by 2013, groups like Friends of the Earth (FoE) were releasing annual reports and launching campaigns to spread the word and get neonics out of our gardens and farms.

Just last year, the US Environmental Protection Agency even assessed the effectiveness of this "insurance policy" for themselves, finding that "on a national scale... farmers see little or no benefit from neonicotinoid seed treatments."

However, not everyone is convinced. Nature World News has previously reported that the United Kingdom in particular claims their own investigations show that while neonics are harmful in rare instances, these adverse effects "do not occur under normal circumstances."

This even led to the UK opposing a European Union (EU) moratorium on new neonic use enacted nearly two years ago - opposition that shut down a proposal to have the toxins banned for good from European agriculture.

And that's despite a recent revelation that nearly one in 10 bee species face extinction in Europe.

Damning Evidence Mounts

As of last month, a spokesperson with the UK's Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) reassured Dave Goulson, an expert in biology at the University of Sussex, and a stern critic of the UK's stance on neonics, that their opinion may change as new evidence comes in.

Now it appears that this evidence is here, with a new comprehensive study published in the journal Nature showing how extensively three popular types of neonics - clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam - can harm wild bees. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : pixabay)

In a recent Science Media Center statement, Goulson, who was not involved in the study, explained that he has long been skeptical of past neonic investigations because of too many suspicious factors.

He claimed that some past field studies "were either conducted by or funded by the agrochemical companies that manufacture the chemicals, leading to some distrust of their results."

"They have also been widely criticized for other reasons," he said. "For example, their control bees were contaminated with neonicotinoids, and the bees were exposed to small experimental plots of treated crop rather than realistic-sized fields, so that most of the bees probably foraged elsewhere. "

That's what makes this new and independent study different, as it had widely spaced and full-sized fields. And the results were strong. The study details how solitary bees failed to breed at all near treated fields, while bumblebee colonies grew slowly and produced far fewer queens.

Honeybee results, on the other hand, appeared little affected, but that was expected, as the study did not follow these colonies into winter when CCD normally occurs.

"At this point in time it is no longer credible to argue that agricultural use of neonicotinoids does not harm wild bees," Goulson said with confidence.

Unanswered Questions Remain

However, this may not be the nail in the coffin Goulson hopes it is.

Lin Field, Head of Biological Chemistry and Crop Protection at Rothamsted Research, added that she personally doesn't think the data is enough to make rash decisions that will impact the agriculture industry on a global scale...

"We also have to consider the reason why we use these compounds," she said. "Can we afford not to control pest insects? Is it acceptable that yields would be reduced as a result?  Are the alternative insecticides any safer to bees?"

She added that these are questions that won't be answered by December, when the EU is expected to reach a final decision concerning neonic control.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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