Is a relatively new class of insecticides, known as neonicotinoids or “neonics,” harming bees and other wildlife? That’s what the International Union for the Conservation of Nature claimed in a recent press release announcing the results of a meta-study the organization conducted earlier this year. One might have expected the press release to be accompanied by the underlying scientific studies. But that wasn’t the case.
The proper way to engage in scientific debate is to publish studies so peers can confirm or refute the findings. Frustratingly, IUCN has only released one of its seven studies, preferring to conduct science by press release. This lack of transparencytogether with the well-known anti-pesticide position of many of the scientists involvedraises suspicions as environmental groups lobby regulators to ban neonics in Canada and the U.S. The pesticides are already banned for two years in the European Union, and IUCN is calling for even-tighter restrictions and a global phaseout.
IUCN’s claims rest on the idea that neonics can be harmful to bees, worms, and other fauna, and that long-term exposure can cause “impaired sense of smell or memory; reduced fecundity; altered feeding behaviour; and reduced food intake” in species that feed on plants.
First introduced in the 1990s as a replacement for older, more toxic organophosphates and pyrethroids, neonics are often used to coat seeds to obviate the need for widespread spraying, thus reducing exposure to farm workers. Although we can’t know exactly how IUCN arrived at its conclusions, we can examine the existing science and published data, particularly on bees. These data don’t support the anti-neonics case.
A paper published in March in the Proceedings of the Royal Society notes a long history of bee declines predating the introduction of neonics in the mid-1990s. Furthermore, the study finds that “there is poor geographical correlation between neonicotinoid use and honeybee decline.” These are crucially important points: If neonics were harming bees, we would expect to see bee declines begin, or worsen, with their introduction. We would also expect to see fewer bees where more neonics are used. The available evidence doesn’t support either hypothesis.
Many factors affect the health of honeybee colonies, including deadly parasites, such as the varroa mite, as well as fungi and viruses. Habitat alteration and the availability of diverse food sources also affect bees, yet IUCN apparently ignores these factors and focuses solely on neonics.
And just how imperiled are bees anyway? Readily available data suggest that while bee health has been problematic for some time, warnings of a “bee-pocalypse” are wrong. Bee populations in Europe, North America and elsewhere in the world are stable and even rising. There are now approximately the same number of bee hives in the U.S. and slightly more in Europe than in 1995, about the time neonics were introduced. Canada’s bee population is the highest it has been since the late 1980s. Global bee populations are up dramatically since the 1960s.
Bee populations can rise despite sometimes large overwinter losses. This is because bee hives regenerate quickly in the spring. But now even overwinter losses appear to be abating. An April 2014 European Commission study found that 75% of the EU bee population experienced losses of 15% or less over the 2012-13 wintera rate considered acceptable by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A small fraction had losses exceeding 20%, mostly caused by harsh winter conditions.
In other words, European regulators know that honeybees aren’t disappearing. Yet they refuse to lift the neonics ban they imposed last winter. The regulators have decided instead to shift their rationale, claiming that wild bumblebees may be harmed, even though the evidence for this claim is thin.
Meanwhile, the good news on bees keeps coming in. The British Beekeepers Association, which monitors overwinter honeybee-colony survival rates, found that losses were below 10% last winter, continuing a six-year downward trend of overwinter losses. Green groups understand all too well that if the facts and the science aren’t on their side, a great deal can be achieved by spreading fear. And insecticides always pay dividends for any fearmonger.
But great harm will arise if fear trumps science when it comes to insecticide regulation. It takes many years and hundreds of millions of dollars to bring a new insecticide to market, and there is no new, safe and effective replacement for neonics around the corner. Banning neonics simply means that farmers are forced to use older insecticides, such as pyrethroids, which are less specific and more harmful to bees and the wider environment.
And people are important, too. Thanks to modern agriculture and chemicals like neonics, food production rates have outstripped population growth. We now have more food at lower prices than at any time in human history. The relatively wealthy environmentalists in Europe and the U.S. who buy overpriced organic produce aren’t going to feel the pinch soon. But for millions of people in the developing world and poorer consumers in industrialized states, no neonics may mean less food at higher prices.