Bee numbers have plummeted globally over the last few years. Please peel your eyes off the ceiling. Few subjects roll eyes faster in heads, but we need to be talking about the disappearance of our bee pollinators. If we don’t, we’ll have to explain to our children and grandchildren why we didn’t act sooner to protect our bees and apologise for our ignorance.
Free at the point of delivery, worth between £430 million and £603 million a year, insect pollination depresses the cost of food for all of us by pollinating around 84% of our crops. And it’s bees that are among the hardest working of these insects: the European honeybee alone provides 80% of insect crop pollination globally. If farmers had to pollinate fruit and vegetables by hand rather than rely upon the free pollination of bees, they would face a bill of approximately £1.8 bn per year.
To stay profitable, farmers would have to pass on the cost to consumers in the form of higher food prices. Food is something that everybody needs to survive, yet the increase in food prices caused by the loss of free-bee pollination would sting the poorest in our society the hardest. The trap door of poverty, cruelly always in a good state of repair, would open up again below the hungry and the powerless.
The hunt for the cause of declining bee numbers is on. Loss of habitat, disease, and especially the use of agricultural pesticides have entered the rogue’s gallery. Last year scientists penned more than 100 papers on the link between pesticides and bees alone. In this country, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has called for a moratorium on neonicotinoids on the strength of existing research.
In the midst of this race for knowledge, our Government has refused to develop a bee policy while promising to turn its ‘open mind’ to the question when more scientific evidence emerges. However, reliable scientific research into the harmful effect on bees of neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides, is accumulating. The European Commission and, independently, European countries such as France have already moved to restrict the use of this damaging pesticide.
For its part, Owen Paterson’s Department for Environment cited a March 2013 report by its own research agency into the effect of neonicotinoids on bumblebees under field conditions. This found little in the way of a problem. Defra is not unnerved by criticism of the report from the European Food Safety Authority for “deficiencies”, “contradictory statements”, and “several weaknesses” (the worst of which–exposing the test sites to neonics before introducing bee colonies–robbed the study of a reference point). As a written response from the Environment Secretary to my own letter of protest showed, Paterson flatly rejected European scientific advice.
Baron de Mauley of Defra made a small concession when he conceded a review that would lead to a plan for combating bee population decline. But, as Friends of the Earth has argued, a plan to form a plan is no plan at all. With its low ceilings and labyrinth routes, the Coalition’s policy leaves bee protectors such as myself trapped and circling, ever hopeful of assistance but unclear about how, when, and whether central government will actually help pollinators.
Without regulation of the use of pesticides, the irrefutable decline of bees cannot be stopped. But local authorities working closely with bee enthusiasts can help slow this damaging trend. In Oxford, where I live, the local Friends of the Earth group has launched Bee World in partnership with the Labour-run City Council in an attempt to restore balance to our eco-system.
Its soil churned by a heavy-duty rotavator which bucked against its tiller, sprinkled with seeds, then sown by shoes as big as my own and as small as those of toddlers enjoying their time in nature for the first time, Oxford’s Bee World had an enjoyable start. In Manchester, the Labour-run City Council is boosting bee numbers by helping to build a hive on Manchester Art Gallery’s roof that, as I saw with my own eyes (albeit mediated through a bee keeping suit visor) is already multiplying bee numbers and raking in the honey.
In Wales, where we have a Labour Government, ministers such as Alun Davies AM have formed a plan to renew National Parks as pollinator-friendly areas and promote bee-supporting gardening and farming. Allotments that expanded in number in the name of recessionary thrift are now finding an entirely new environmental purpose.
It is deeply ironic that farmers use expensive insecticides to limit diseases and boost crop production yet are leading the way to larger costs as they boost bee deaths and limit pollination. It is desperately sad that the Whitehall hive mind is peddling poor justifications for inertia when scientific knowledge exists in sufficient quantity to support intervention. We need Labour to restore good environmental government, to develop a bee action plan similar to that of the Welsh Government which draws on the cooperation of Labour-run councils and activists such as Friends of the Earth. Otherwise, today’s and tomorrow’s custodians of wildlife will be left counting the costs to our environment and living standards of a Tory-led Government that puts dogma before duty.
This article also appeared on LabourList. Tom is on Twitter at @tomhayes1983.