Honey Bees: The next food crisis?


According to long-term research bees are in peril. And many will quite rightly ask, “why should we care?” They buzz around our jam on picnics and sting us when we shoo them away.

Bees, like many other insect taxa, provide society with a vital ecosystem service: pollination. Around 1/3 of Britain’s crops rely on the work of pollinators to travel from one plant to another and cross fertilise, leading to the production of the goods we hope to harvest such as fruits and vegetables. Considering the British bee population has declined by a third since 2007 and our population grows the need for the services they provide is ever increasing. However, our exponentially growing global population also increases the level of threat to the current, struggling bee population. The primary threat is the intensification of agriculture and hence, the loss of marginal land and cover crops, the planting of monocultures and the expanding use pesticides and herbicides. Additionally global climate change threatens the current ecological range of native bee species and raises the likelihood of the introduction of parasites and pathogens. Further information can be found in this handy section of The Guardian website.


Neonicotinoid use is currently at the forefront of debate in this area of research. As Marla Spivak explains in her TEDtalk below, neonicotinoids are a relatively new group of synthetic chemicals related to nicotine, thought to be highly toxic to insects. Neonics are systemic pesticides usually either sprayed onto foliage or used to coat the seeds, which are then taken up by the plant and transported to all the tissues (leaves, flowers, roots and stems, as well as pollen and nectar).  The main draw is it’s longevity as the insecticide toxin remains active in the plant for many weeks, protecting the crop season-long.

In the UK,  5 neonicotinoid insecticides are authorised for use in agriculture: acetamiprid; clothianidin; imidacloprid; thiacloprid; and thiamethoxam.  They are widely used as seed treatments for cereals, sugar beet and oil seed rape (around 90% of the area treated with neonics), soil treatment for pot plants in the ornamental sector, treatment for turf in the amenity sector and are available to the public as treatments for lawns and pot plants.

However, after a growing number of scientific studies blamed pesticides – and specifically neonicotinoids – for contributing to hive collapses throughout Europe, the European Commission (EC) introduced a two-year moratorium on three types of the insect nerve agent commonly found in pesticides (imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam) in 2013.  As the Guardian described last month, now, in 2015 the jury is out as to whether the temporary ban is to be sustained or uplifted. While some support the ban unconditionally, many researchers such as bee biologist professor Dave Goulson argue for perpective: “The science is pretty convincing that neonicotinoids are contributing to bees’ decline, but it’s by no means the worst factor. Most scientists agree it’s habitat loss that is the single biggest driver, with disease and pesticides contributing. Obviously, any pesticide is damaging to wildlife; it’s about finding the right balance between productivity and environmental impact.”

The most recent piece of influential evidence was published just days ago by the New Scientist, stating that bees were found to preferred the pollen of plants laced with neonicotinoids even though the consumption of these pesticides caused them to eat less food overall. This has spurred many to argue that bees may become addicted to the chemicals, further accelerating neonicotinoid related bee decline.

On the other hand, the work of many conservation projects and initiatives may indicate a more positive future for bees and other pollinators. Despite concerns over long-term decline, American bee populations have shown less die-off compared to 2014 according to a recent study.

Closer to home, Molecular Ecology published recent research led by the University of Sussex which found that the inclusion of wild flower strips boost bee population numbers within ‘flower-friendly farms’. The study argued in support of agri-environment schemes such as Higher-level Stewardship (HLS) and the maintenance of natural hedgerows and field-strips of wild flowers similar to the previous ‘set-aside’ policy dropped in 2004. Such farms not only had a higher abundance of bees, but also higher biodiversity!

So what can we do as non-agricultural citizens? Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust reiterates the National Pollinator Strategy published by DEFRA in last year, calling for reduced use of herbicides and pesticides, planting of pollinator attracting species such as herbs and lavender and cutting grass less often to promote flowering clovers.  Go bees!


9 thoughts on “Honey Bees: The next food crisis?

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