Tag Archives: Pesticides

Recent developments in pollinator conservation: IPBES, 10 Policies, pesticide conspiracies, and more

Bee on apple blossom - 1st May 2015

It’s been a busy week for anyone interested in pollinators and their conservation, lots of things happening that I thought I would summarise in a single post with links.

First of all IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) has finally released the full text of its Thematic Assessment on Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production  – nine months after it was discussed at the 4th IPBES Plenary Meeting, and three months after the Summary for Policymakers came out.  Even now the document is not in its ultimate state, it’s the text without its final layout or appendices (though it still runs to 868 pages!)  The preamble to the report states that:  “A full laid out colour version, including a preface and annexes will be posted here shortly”.

Sources tell me that there have been some delays while the exact style and colour scheme of the report are finalised, which, if true, is frankly not very encouraging : this is an important document that needed to made public at the earliest opportunity.  I accept that it’s got to be correct, and it’s a complex report, and this is not a criticism of the authors, rather of IPBES’s bureaucracy.  Pollination ecology and pollinator conservation is a fast moving field and there have already been significant scientific and policy developments since the text was finalised which will not be incorporated into this version.

To coincide with the release of the report comes two important articles in the two most prestigious scientific journals by some of the authors of the report.  In “Ten Policies for Pollinators” (Dicks et al. Science 354: 975-976) the authors set out a series of recommendations for politicians.  The article is paywalled so here’s their list with some annotations [in square brackets]:

1. Raise pesticide regulatory standards [to include our most important pollinators – wild bees and other insects!]
2. Promote integrated pest management (IPM) [rather than automatically feeding the profits of agrochemical companies].
3. Include indirect and sublethal effects in GM crop risk assessments.
4. Regulate movement of managed pollinators [lots of evidence that poor husbandry is a major cause of colony collapse disorder, for example].
5. Develop incentives, such as insurance schemes, to help farmers benefit from ecosystem services instead of agrochemicals.
6. Recognize pollination as an agricultural input in extension services.
7. Support diversified farming systems [does Brexit provide an opportunity to do this in the UK?]
8. Conserve and restore “green infrastructure” (a network of habitats that pollinators can move between) in agricultural and urban landscapes [already lots being done on this in urban areas but much less in rural areas].
9. Develop long-term monitoring of pollinators and pollination [there’s already been a report on this – expect more news early next year].
10. Fund participatory research on improving yields in organic, diversified, and ecologically intensified farming.

Overall it’s a sensible set of recommendations – the only ones that I would have added would be to develop education and awareness programmes of the importance of natural capital and ecosystem services, aimed at farmers, civil servants, politicians, planners, business and industry, developers, etc.  And also to build consideration of natural capital into local planning systems so that the loss of habitats, trees, ponds, etc. are properly accounted for.  I’m sure others can think of more – feel free to comment.

Getting politicians to take notice of these recommendations in an age where scientific experts are derided as no different to “soothsayers and astrologers” will be a challenge though.

Lead author Lynn Dicks discussed these recommendations on the BBC Radio 4 Farming Today programme (from about 3:27) – well worth a listen.

Following on from this some of the authors of the 10 recommendations article were also involved in a review published this week entitled “Safeguarding pollinators and their values to human well-being” (Potts et al. Nature) – hopefully that link will take you to the full text of the article which is being widely circulated for free in a read-only form (it can’t be downloaded unless you have an e-subscription to Nature).

On the subject of safeguarding pollinators (and specifically from pesticides) a video of Dave Goulson speaking at the 2015 National Honey Show appears to have been edited to remove his comments about neonicotinoid pesticides (about 34:08 to 34:28).  Dave’s not sure if this is conspiracy or cock-up, but it’s an odd coincidence that this is the only glitch in an otherwise well-produced video.

At about 39:20 Dave talks about the importance of engaging kids with nature and specifically pollinators.  I completely agree and last week did a live Q&A phone interview with Year 7 pupils at Abbeyfield School in Northampton who are doing a project on bees.   The kids asked some great questions and were very well informed – a credit to their teachers!

This week there was a lot of pollinator and pollination ecology being discussed at the Ecological Society of Australia’s annual conference – Manu Saunders has produced a Storify to summarise the talks and Twitter comments – here’s the link.

Linked to this, against my better judgement and as an experiment, I’ve finally joined Twitter.  It’s a bit of an experiment to see how I get on and so far I’m enjoying it, though I’m sticking to science and environmental news – my handle is @JeffOllerton if you want to follow or tweet at me.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Honey bees, IPBES, Neonicotinoids, Pollination, Urban biodiversity

Bees and pesticides – a major new study just published – UPDATED

Male B lap on Salvia cropped P1120309

An important new study about the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on wild bees has just been published in the journal Nature Communications – here’s the details and a link to the paper, which is open access:

Woodcock, B. A. et al. (2016) Impacts of neonicotinoid use on long-term population changes in wild bees in England. Nat. Commun. 7:12459 doi: 10.1038/ncomms12459

As I’ve previously discussed on this blog (e.g. here and here) there are widespread concerns amongst environmentalists, and some scientists, about the impact that these relatively new pesticides are having on pollinators and other biodiversity.  The Woodcock et al. paper is a major contribution to this discussion as it uses a huge dataset to model the changes in populations of 62 wild bee species that are known to forage on oilseed rape (canola) over 18 years.  These changes can be related to the spatial extent of oilseed rape cultivation and the authors found that whilst bees “….foraging on oilseed rape benefit from the…[nectar and pollen provided by]….this crop….[they]….were on average three times more negatively affected by exposure to neonicotinoids than…” bees which didn’t forage on the crop.

The authors further conclude that “This study provides the first evidence for community level national scale impacts on the persistence of wild bee populations resulting from exposure to neonicotinoid treated oilseed rape crops.”

Neonicotinoid pesticides are, of course, not the whole story when it comes to understanding declines in pollinator diversity and abundance.  But these pesticides are the latest in a long history of changes to British agriculture that have had significant consequences for the biodiversity of our country (as we showed in our study of bee and wasp extinctions).

Reactions to the study have been, well, predictable.  A long feature on the BBC News website* quoted a representative from Bayer as saying:

“we believe….[the study’s]….findings would be more correctly headlined that intensive agriculture is causing some issues with pollinators…..  Whether this is due to the use of insecticides is not clear; a lack of nesting sites and pollen and nectar sources in these areas may also be critical factors.”

Which rather ignores the fact that this was a comparative study of bees that forage on oilseed rape versus those that don’t.

Likewise the National Farmer’s Union’s position was that:

“While this study claims to provide an important contribution to the evidence base underpinning the current EU moratorium on some uses of neonicotinoids, experts reviewing all the evidence have concluded that there are still major gaps in our knowledge and a limited evidence base to guide policymakers”

Which sounds to me like a statement designed to fudge the issue: the “experts reviewing all the evidence” would not have reviewed this particular study!  And which begs the question – how much evidence and how many studies would be enough for the NFU?

The study’s authors do not make any suggestions as to what the next step should be in this continuing saga but are quoted as saying that “simplistic solutions” such as banning these pesticides are not the answer because this will encourage use of pesticides that are even more damaging.  That may be the case but it’s clear that an independent root-and-branch reassessment of the use of pesticides (and herbicides) in UK agriculture is long overdue.

 

*As an aside, this BBC News piece wrongly states that bumblebees were not included in the study, which is not the case.

 

UPDATE:  After I published this post I noticed that Manu Saunders has also written about the bee study, plus a second study that I’d not seen linking neonicotinoid use to declining butterfly populations in California.  Here’s a link to Manu’s blog.

 

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Neonicotinoids, Pollination

Butterflies and pesticides – a new study and a smoking gun

Gatekeeper cropped P1010472

Following hot on the trail of the raft of recent papers that I highlighted on the blog last week comes a new study by Andre Gilburn and colleagues entitled “Are neonicotinoid pesticides driving declines of widespread butterflies?“.  The paper is open access and published in the journal PeerJ which encourages post-publication comments and review of the work.  I see that Tom Oliver of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology has started the ball rolling with a couple of questions, and hopefully more will follow, with responses from the authors.

The paper focuses on the fact that between 2000 and 2009 there was a 58% decline in butterfly abundance on farmed land in the UK despite a doubling of spending on conservation in the UK over the same period, much of it on agri-environmental schemes on that very same farmed land.

Using a statistical modelling approach the authors conclude that the introduction of neonicotinoid pesticides in the mid-1990s is strongly implicated as a likely driver of those declines.  My immediate question on reading the paper was: “What were the trends like before the mid-1990s, and did the rate of decline change significantly after that period?”

The authors don’t directly answer the question but it seems to me to be quite an important one to answer because abrupt changes in rates of decline in the abundance and diversity of species can be linked to broader changes in, for example, land management and agricultural practices, as we showed recently for bee and wasp extinctions in Britain.

So I looked for the data that would tell me whether the trend had changed and found what I needed in the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme annual report for 2014.  Here’s a screen grab of Figure 3 from the report:

Butterfly abundance indices - November 2015

I’ve marked the point at which neonicotinoid pesticides were starting to be widely used in UK farming with a black line.  As you can clearly see this is also roughly the point at which the abundance of the 24 “Species of the wider countryside” begins to trend downwards.  In comparison, the 26 “Habitat specialists” show much less of a change, and in fact their initial decline was much earlier (in the 1970s-80s), possibly in response to loss of species rich grassland and ancient woodland.

Of course I’m just eyeballing the data and it needs to be tested statistically to see if there really is a break point in the trend at the mid-1990s, but this ought to be possible for anyone with access to the full data set.  Even if this is shown to be the case it’s all correlative (as Gilburn and colleagues acknowledge) and proving causation is difficult.  Nonetheless it looks to me like there’s an interesting smoking gun here that deserves further study.

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By lifting the restriction on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides Defra throws a (bee) brick at its own National Pollinator Strategy

P1120353

Yesterday a brick arrived in the post.  Not just any brick, but a Bee Brick, designed by the Green&Blue company in Cornwall as an architectural addition that can provide habitat for cavity nesting solitary species such as the Patchwork leaf-cutter bee that I discussed during Pollinator Awareness week.  A representative of the company recently got in touch, after having read my blog, and asked if I’d like a sample to try out in the garden.  In the absence of any planned wall building I’ve placed it a couple of metres up on the flat top of a south facing summer house window.  It’s probably a bit late in the season to attract any nesting solitary bees this year, but we’ll see; expect a report back from me at some point.

I had actually encountered the Bee Brick earlier this year at the Chelsea Flower Show which Karin and I attended as a 50th year bucket-list day out.  It was ok, I enjoyed it, the plants and (some of) the gardens were great.  But it was too busy, too expensive and too full of ostentatiously wealthy people for my tastes.

As if to serve as a counter-point to all the good work being done during Pollinator Awareness Week and by companies such as Green&Blue, came the recent news that Defra has agreed to lift the restrictions on use of two neonicotinoid pesticides on oil seed rape across a “limited” area in the east of the country.  It will apparently apply mainly to Suffolk, and cover an area of about 30,000 hectares.  That’s 5% of the UK’s oil seed rape crop.

The decision was made at the behest of the National Farmers Union, and seems to make no farming sense whatsoever given that nationally yields of oil seed rape have not been affected by the restriction on neonicotinoids, with the harvest this year looking to be above average.   Not surprisingly the decision has drawn furious fire from a range of environmental organisations including Buglife and the Wildlife Trusts. Meanwhile Friends of the Earth have threatened legal action, a move prompted by the fact that the Government has refused to allow its independent advisors to publish the details of the decision, including how it was made and what was discussed.

Aside from the lack of transparency, what particularly worries me is that this decision opens the door to further use of these restricted pesticides over the next 12 months, on a region by region basis, until we are back where we were prior to the restrictions being imposed.  The two year restriction on use of neonicotinoid pesticides comes to an end in December, at which point no one outside (and possibly inside) of Defra knows what is going to happen.

The National Farmers Union is being very selective with their use of information about the scientific evidence base for the effects of these pesticides on pollinators.  Dr Chris Hartfield, the NFU’s horticultural policy adviser and lead on bee health issues, was quoted as saying “The majority of the research that has fuelled this debate has been based on artificial dosing studies. The big question in this area is, does this accurately reflect what happens to bees foraging in and around neonicotinoid crops?  We don’t know, but the field studies haven’t shown that they are causing population declines in pollinators”.

Dr Hartfield and the NFU know full well that all of the evidence so far published shows that even at very small (field realistic) doses, neonicotinoid pesticides have been demonstrated to have important, sub-lethal effects on pollinators that may ultimately affect populations of some species.  Surely the wisest course of action is to further restrict their use until we have studied the situation.

This is not the only occasion when the NFU have been less than objective with their use of scientific evidence.  In the past couple of weeks I’ve had a group email exchange with Dr Hartfield in which he talked about the study by Carvalheiro et al. (2013) that “shows these [pollinator] declines have slowed (or even reversed) in the last 2 decades”.  I responded by pointing out that the current situation is not as straightforward as that.  The recent paper that we published in the journal Science showed that the rate of extinctions of UK bees and flower-visiting wasps has in fact increased over the period when Carvalheiro et al. (2013) see a slow down in declines in abundance.

There are a number of reasons why our results may be in disagreement with those of Carvalheiro et al., which we discuss in the paper, including the large statistical confidence interval around the rate of extinction during this latter period. However as with all such data, one or two studies will not give a definitive answer.  I provided Dr Hartfield with a link to our paper but I’m still waiting to receive a reply.

Initiatives such as the Bee Brick, reduced mowing on road verges, the RHS’s Perfect for Pollinators plant list, etc., etc. are important but they are tiny contributions compared to the role that must be played by British agriculture if we are to conserve pollinator diversity in the UK.  Farming accounts for 70% of the land surface in this country and has by far the greatest part to play in reducing biodiversity loss.

Within 12 months of Defra launching the National Pollinator Strategy, the same Government department has decided to bow to pressure and allow some use of a group of pesticides that we know are causing problems, even if they are not the whole story.  Defra is effectively hurling what may be the first of many bricks at itself, ultimately weakening the Strategy.   From conversations with politicians I know that these large departments do not have good internal communication and dialogue, but this seems to be an outstanding example of Orwellian double-think on the part of Defra.

P1120355

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Something for the weekend #6 – eco-gentrification, neonicotinoid pesticides, bees, birds, and bacteria

The latest in a regular series of posts to biodiversity-related* items that have caught my attention during the week:

  • One of the unintended (and sometimes intended) consequences of greening our cities may be “eco-gentrification”, as property prices increase and low income families are displaced – this interesting article from The Guardian discusses the phenomenon and its possible solutions.
  • The evidence against neonicotinoid pesticides, and specifically their effect on bee populations, continues to mount.  In this recent blog post, Philip Strange provides a very useful summary of the findings of some recent studies.  The latest research was also covered on the BBC News website and I was struck by this quote from Nick von Westenholz, CEO of the Crop Protection Association, which represents the firms that produce neonicotinoid pesticides:  “The latest studies in Nature must be seen in the context of ongoing campaign to discredit neonicotinoid pesticides, regardless of what the real evidence shows.”  As if that’s how science actually works! All of us scientists gang together to discredit things.  Clueless, and clearly fighting a desperate rear-guard action.  There was also some interesting expert reaction on the Science Media website that’s worth reading.
  • The tree of life just got more complex: a newly discovered phylum of prokaryotic microbes has genetic features in common with the eukaryotic domains (animals, plants, fungi, etc.) and provides clues as to how complex, multicellular life may have evolved.  Here’s links to the abstract of the original paper and to a summary on the BBC News website.
  • Finally, as I write this, the results of the General Election are coming in and it looks very likely that the UK will have a majority Conservative government for the next five years.  What that means for controversial, large scale developments such as HS2, and for wildlife, biodiversity, and the state of the UK’s ecosystems more generally, remains to be seen.  It could be a bumpy few years.

Feel free to recommend links that have caught your eye.

*Disclaimer: may sometimes contain non-biodiversity-related items.

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Should biodiversity scientists be campaigners and polemicists?

NPS workshop

Earlier this week I attended a two day research funding workshop intended to develop initial project ideas to address evidence gaps in the recent National Pollinator Strategy.  It was a productive meeting from which will hopefully emerge some important, focused science.  As is so often the case at scientific meetings, many of the most interesting conversations occurred after the end of the day’s formal work, in the pub.  There was a little bar stool criticism of some of the recent published work on the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on pollinator health, and specifically whether or not researchers engaged in this kind of controversial science should be polemicists, stirring up controversy, or even activists with particular agendas that they wish to promote.

Whilst I agree that there is a difficult line to walk between scientist as campaigner and scientist as neutral presenter of facts, I also think that polemicist/activist is quite an admirable position for a scientist to take in many ways, as long as the rhetoric is backed up by sound science. It’s also brave given that perceptions of scientists can change the likelihood of their research being funded or even published – reviews and reviewers are rarely as objective as we would like to believe.

So should scientists, and specifically those, like myself, who are engaged with biodiversity science in all its myriad forms, be also engaged in campaigns and polemics?  Is this what wider society wants from its scientists?  How do other scientists feel about this?  I’d really be interested in your views.

In this blog I’ve made no secret of the fact that I take certain positions on subjects such as the impact of poorly conceived development on nature reserves, the fallacies of political spin, and future developments in UK nature conservation.  Those are positions that are predicated as much by my personal motivations as an “environmentalist” (a term I don’t like but which is widely understood and will do for now) as they are by my professional role as a university scientist who does research and teaches.  I am not a neutral observer, though I hope that I’m an objective one.

There’s a lot of questions that can spin off from reflecting on the role of biodiversity science and scientists in the modern age, which I don’t have time to properly explore but which I hope will emerge in the comments.  I was prompted to write this by a really interesting post by Joern Fischer over at the Ideas for Sustainability blog entitled “Losing humanity and other questions science doesn’t ask“.  In it Joern develops some ideas about the kind of science that we should be doing “for it to be of use in the sense of creating a better, more sustainable world”.  I’d add that what is important is not just the science that we do, it’s how we present that science (the passion and the story telling) to a range of audiences, and also the personal positions we take on the issues that the science illuminates.

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