Bees and neonicotinoids: moving towards a Europe-wide ban?

It’s been an exciting week for bee health both in the UK and Europe. Progress towards the removal of neonicotinoid pesticides from use is advancing rapidly, with several UK companies banning these products from sale, and the European Commission setting out proposals to ban them from use across Europe by July this year.

On 16 January, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published their review of the risks that neonicotinoid pesticides pose to bees. Using scientific, technical and monitoring data, the review highlighted the acute risks of the insecticides, concluding that exposure from pollen and nectar was only considered acceptable on crops that were not attractive to honey bees. Many developments have followed on from this, as decision-makers have been able to point towards the review as a good body of evidence, where information has been collated for the first time.

Less than two weeks after EFSA’s publication, the removal of these pesticides from stores was announced by three major retailers in the UK. B&Q, Wickes and Homebase have pledged that they will no longer continue to sell products containing pesticides in the neonicotinoid family of insecticides – specifically imidacloprid, clothrianidin and thiamethoxam. These bold statements, made in the absence of UK policy, present the increasing sustainability and environmental awareness of the business world, and the fast reactions that can result from key decisions and announcements.

In the same week that the UK saw retailers banning products containing neonicotinoids from their shelves, the European Commission outlined measures for the ban of the pesticides across the European Union member states. The proposals, based on the risks highlighted by EFSA, include the prohibition of the use of neonicotinoids on crops that are attractive to bees – such as maize and oil seed rape – as well as the banning of the sale of products containing these pesticides. Implementation is proposed as July at the latest, and the policy is set to be reviewed after two years. If a majority of EU member states vote in favour of this, it could enter EU law by the end of February.

The UK government is still awaiting the results of trials implemented by Defra to assess the effects of the pesticides in field conditions and review pesticide residue levels in bee populations. Despite the build-up of evidence over the past year showing the detrimental effects and risks these pesticides pose to bees, decisions over their use in the UK still remain unannounced. This is increasingly concerning. By deciding to wait for the results of investigations into very specific effects of the pesticides, a choice has been made to not use the precautionary principle approach to implement a small-scale or short-term ban in the meantime. The precautionary principle is one of the key elements for policy decisions concerning environmental protection, as it can be applied where there are grounds for concern that an activity could cause, or is already causing, harm but the degree of risk is still uncertain.

The effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on bees are still being assessed by the Environmental Audit Committee in their inquiry into Insects and Insecticides. Pesticide giant and neonicotinoid producer Bayer appeared before MPs for the second time last week, and EFSA is to appear this week.