Creating a buzz: how to influence bee health policy

What is the impact of pesticides on bees? This week the British Ecological Society, the Biochemical Society and the Society for Experimental Biology have been holding a joint meeting here in London to discuss this question. Bringing together scientists from a range of different disciplines in biology and ecology, the meeting acts as a place to share current understanding on bee declines linked to pesticides and forge new research opportunities for the future. Yesterday, Professor Ian Boyd, Chief Scientific Advisor at Defra, came to share his views on current pollinator declines and the policy implications of this.

Bees have been in the spotlight a lot recently, with increasing scientific studies emerging about the impact of pesticides on their health and new national and EU regulations being proposed and put into action. Bees are vitally important for many reasons, including biodiversity, pollination and food production. The value bees have to UK agricultural production through pollination have been estimated at hundreds of millions of pounds, and to replace the pollination services bees undertake would cost the UK around £1.8bn a year.

Given the importance of bees to biodiversity and agriculture, the increasing reports of the impact pesticides have upon bees has steadily been gaining more attention and calls for something to be done. In particular the class of pesticides, neonicotinoids, has been found to be particularly detrimental to bee populations. Many scientific studies ranging from the lab to the field have found that pesticides have a variety of impacts upon bee health. These impacts include effects on foraging ability, breeding success, mortality and colony collapse.

However, understanding bee declines due to pesticides is complex and implicated by a range of other factors. A lack of wild studies is also impacting current knowledge and has been linked to one of the reasons the UK did not back recent EU banning of neonicotinoids. Despite this, policy movements are being made to try and address this issue. The EU Commission recently adopted a two year ban on the use of neonicotinoids throughout Europe, whilst Wales announced a Pollinator Action Plan back in July and Scotland developed a specific Honey Bee Health Strategy in 2010. For the UK as a whole, a National Pollinator Strategy should be out later this year, laying out specific actions on how bees can be helped to overcome current declines.

At the meeting, Professor Ian Boyd was invited to give his perspectives on science policy and where pollinators lie on the political agenda. Whilst noting the importance of pollinators, he said that unfortunately they were not at the top of the list of Defra priorities. Political and practical dimensions both play a role in this problem and the part that scientists need to help him address are the practical ones – what are the challenges facing pollinators and more importantly, what does this mean in practice? He highlighted that a particular problem in regards to pollinators was the lack of field studies and studies looking at what potential solutions would mean in practice. For example, going back to agricultural practices with no pesticide use may seem like the best option, but unless there is scientific evidence available to support that changing from one state to another will be truly beneficial, it can be difficult for policy makers to make an informed decision on this.

Ian also highlighted the role of Defra and how policy is shaped. He mentioned how policies are not made in one straight forward process, but rather are subject to many different external factors and pressures. Scientists can help in this process by making sure that the messages they communicate are clear and constructive. Some pointers that Ian gave are helpful for any scientist trying to engage with the policy process. The main tips that were emphasised were:

– Have a clear strategy when trying to communicate your science. What is the overall goal you want to achieve and what steps do you need to put in place? A structured and logical approach will have much more impact than a hastily put together campaign.

– Be totally honest about scientific uncertainty – don’t hide it away. Policy makers need to be aware of the things we don’t know. This mirrors what was said in one of our earlier blog posts.

– Tell policy makers the solutions and not just the problems. If possible, show the science that can show that those solutions will work. If you just talk about the problems, policy makers will switch off and struggle to properly engage.

Overall, the impact of pesticides on bee health is highly complex and as such this may have in part hindered more rapid policy progress. However, political progress is now being made in response to pollinator declines, and over the next coming months it will become clear, for the UK at least, as to whether the outlined actions are reflective of the current science.