By Fiona Nicholson, Science writer

A BITTER BATTLE between environmental experts and the rich and powerful agri-chemical giants is brewing once more over the fate of our bees.
It is a David and Goliath encounter which will become even fiercer the closer we move towards the end of a ban on nerve agent-style pesticides known as Neonicotinoids, (neonics).
And Scotland is right at the heart of it.
Having lost an estimated third of its bee population within the last few years, according to beekeepers, Scotland now faces a concerted campaign by many farmers and agri-businesses to re-introduce the banned pesticides in at least a limited form.
Following a number of incidents of mass poisonings of bees, the European Food Safety Authority in 2013 banned the use of three neonics – imidaclorid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam – for use on flowering crops. The ban is up for review in December even though their use has been blamed for the decimation of bees and other pollinating insects throughout the world in recent decades.
Despite this, the National Farmers Union is encouraging farmers to apply to DEFRA for a partial reintroduction of the deadly pesticides. The NFU want to use neonics as seed treatments prior to sowing. It follows widespread complaints from farmers who say they are experiencing heavy crop losses (around 5 per cent), particularly in oilseed rape, since the ban. Since the moratorium farms have had to return to using older types of pesticides to which many insects have developed a natural resistance.
Agri-giant Syngenta, which produces thiamethoxam, has opposed the ban, claiming it is “based on poor science and ignores a wealth of evidence from the field.”
It says much of the research into the effects of neonics on bees has been laboratory-based, using dosages far in excess of those to which bees are exposed in the field. It also claims field trials – which are difficult to implement and control – have been inconclusive. A lawsuit raised by Syngenta against the European Union over the pesticide ban is still ongoing.
The agri-giant is currently the subject of a $45 billion opening take-over bid by Monsanto. If the deal is not scuppered by European and US anti-trust regulators, the mega-corporation created would control more than 35 per cent of the world’s seed supply and have a joint revenue of $30 billion, say critics of the move.

Syngenta has been described by them as “one of the biggest pushers of bee-killing pesticides in the world.”

PAN UK, (Pesticide Action Network UK), claims that research has wrongly focussed on directly lethal doses of neonics. It says current research has failed to highlight the deadly effects of chronic sub-lethal doses. Investigations into mass poisonings have indicated that these were caused by exposure of foraging bees to lethal doses of neonics, carried in airborne dust during planting of neonic-treated seed – the procedure favoured by the NFU.
These serious incidents have led to partial bans on neonic pesticides in some countries. Yet the rapid decline in bee populations is continuing.
PAN UK point out that the ban only applies to flowering crops such as oilseed rape, and the nerve agent pesticides are available to the general public for domestic use, as well as being widely used on commercially available flowering plants in garden centres.
As systemic nerve agents, neonics remain active within plants and soil for prolonged periods, while their breakdown products are more toxic than the parent compound.
In the US, where hives of bees are trucked around the country for commercial pollination of crops, there has been no ban on neonics, and hive losses due to Collapsed Colony Disorder, CCD, have been as high as 40 per cent in recent years, with some beekeepers losing 90 per cent of their colonies.
Mass poisonings also occurred in the US in 2010 and 2011, due to contaminated dust from maize planters where seeds had been neonic-treated. The contaminated dust was shown to contain 700,000 times the lethal dose to bees of the neonicotinoid used.
Honeybee pollination, alone, is worth $15 billion a year to the US economy. Other pollinators – now also in serious decline -add to the economic value of crop pollination.
This led to President Obama stating in a 2014 Memorandum: “The problem is serious and requires immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems, avoid additional economic impact on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment.”
President Obama set up a special task force to “focus on understanding, preventing and recovering from pollinator losses.” The USA’s Environmental Protection Agency is now reviewing the use of neonics in the country.
Much of the severe global decline in bee populations is attributable to the poorly understood phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder, (CCD), which emerged in the US in 2006, causing the loss of 30 to 90 per cent of hives.

Affected hives are found empty of adult worker bees. Only immature bees, with arrested development, remain in addition to the queen. These colonies quickly die out as they lack the supply of nectar, pollen and plant resins gathered by worker bees to feed the colony and to build the wax cells for eggs and larvae produced by the queen.
Starvation and malnutrition weakens the immune system of bees in affected nests, leaving them susceptible to cold, disease and parasites. Affected colonies tend to have higher levels of parasites and pathogens such as the deadly Varroa mite and viruses.
Environmentalists suggest that these attacks reflect an impaired hive immunity due to lack of adequate nutrition. Neonics are often used to treat these pathogens in the commercial hive, particularly in the US, says PAN UK.
Like Friends of the Earth, it argues that CCD and the overall decline of pollinators is the result of chronic sub-lethal doses of neonics.  Neonics contaminate the food supplies within the colony long after crop flowering periods have passed and may remain in the soil for up to three years after sowing a neonic-treated crop, systemically contaminating new crops or vegetation.
The disappearance of the mature worker bees remains a mystery, but research published this year by Dr Chris Connolly, of the University of Dundee, and Professor Steve Buckland, of St Andrews University, shows conclusively that a tiny sub-lethal dose of neonics immediately – and adversely – affects the bee brain. It inhibits homing ability, impairs learning and memory and leads to poor communication with nest mates.
Dr Connolly suggests a number of measures which can be used by the general public as well as agriculturalists to reduce the risks of neonic pesticides to bees and other pollinators: DON’T use neonics on garden plants, especially flowering types; INCREASE the availability of bee friendly blossoming plants; in gardens PROVIDE safe food sources; and BAN the use of neonics on crops in fields where bees forage.

Any ban on pesticides is a devolved matter, and is handled by DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) for the UK Government.

When asked to comment, in a bland two-paragraph statement, DEFRA said: “The Government remains committed to ensuring pesticides are available, but only when the regulators are satisfied and the scientific evidence shows they are safe to people and the environment.
“The EU will be reviewing the evidence on the effects of neonicotinoids on pollinators. Until this work is complete, the current restrictions remain in place.”

Any ban on pesticides is a devolved matter, and is handled by DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) for the UK Government.
When asked to comment, in a bland two-paragraph statement, DEFRA said: “The Government remains committed to ensuring pesticides are available, but only when the regulators are satisfied and the scientific evidence shows they are safe to people and the environment.
“The EU will be reviewing the evidence on the effects of neonicotinoids on pollinators. Until this work is complete, the current restrictions remain in place.”SaveTheBeesLog

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