Pesticides are not the only problem. Too often important habitats for pollinators and other wildlife continue to be lost or damaged. Some 98% of wildflower meadows have already been lost in the UK since the 1950's.
Stung into action by the mounting evidence of the threats faced by bees and other pollinators, and a vociferous campaign by Friends of the Earth and other organisations, ministers finally agreed in 2013 to do something about it.
The result was the National Pollinator Strategy, and it's a year old today. There is much to celebrate - including an impressive list of bee-friendly projects from companies, councils and communities.
But a new report published today by the Bee Coalition warns that our bees and pollinators are still in jeopardy - and the Government is still doing too little to help them.
The threat from pesticides is a major concern, with a plethora of new and worrying scientific evidence linking neonicotinoid pesticides with harm to bees. The past year has seen a long list of new evidence linking neonicotinoids with harm to bees.
As the Bee Coalition report states, "The evidence on neonicotinoids has now piled up to the point that the risk to bees is essentially confirmed." For example, field trials in Sweden found the use of neonicotinoid treated seeds "has negative effects on wild bees, with potential negative effects on populations."
Another study from the University of Sussex found high levels of neonicotinoids in wild flowers, including poppies and hogweed that grow next to treated fields - often higher than in the crop itself. This demonstrates the persistence of these chemicals and reveals a whole new avenue by which bees can be exposed to these toxic chemicals
Also very worrying is a study by Newcastle University which found that bees preferred to feed on sucrose solutions laced with neonicotinoids than sucrose alone. It appears that bees may actually seek out these chemicals rather than avoiding them. The study concludes that treating flowering crops with commonly used neonicotinoids "presents a sizeable hazard to foraging bees."
All these latest findings follow restrictions that were placed on three neonicotinoid pesticides in 2013 after European scientists found a high risk to honeybees.
Green light for banned pesticides
Unfortunately the growing mountain of evidence did not stop the Government from allowing seeds treated with two neonicotinoid pesticides - currently banned by the EU due to their toxicity to bees - to be planted in parts of England this autumn.
Friends of the Earth is challenging this decision - and we expect to know this Thursday 5th November whether or not the High Court will allow our case to progress.
The NFU says crops are being devastated without neonics. But since restrictions on these chemicals were introduced, yields on the UK's oilseed rape crops not treated with neonicotinoids have been above average.
In fact, the final UK harvest data for oilseed rape not treated with neonicotinoids shows that it's been a bumper crop. Winter oilseed rape yield was 13% above the 10-year average, while spring oilseed rape yield was up 25-30%. One Lincolnshire farmer even set a new world record for oilseed rape yield.
Neonicotinoids are clearly not a silver bullet for protecting crops - indeed a recent study found no overall effect on yield from using treated seeds. Yet the National Farmers' Union has made it clear that we can expect to see further applications for neonicotinoid use next year.
Integrated Pest Management - government must do more!
There are many agricultural techniques which reduce the need for pesticides, such as crop rotation, the use of resistant varieties of plants and the careful monitoring of pest populations to determine if threshold levels have been exceeded.
Better deployment of these techniques - known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) - could yield excellent results - possibly reducing pesticide use by 50%.
In fact, IPM is enshrined in EU law. Article 14 of Directive 2009/128/EC 'establishing a framework for Community action to achieve the sustainable use of pesticides' requires all EU governments to
"take all necessary measures to promote low pesticide-input pest management, giving wherever possible priority to non-chemical methods, so that professional users of pesticides switch to practices and products with the lowest risk to human health and the environment among those available for the same pest problem."
Yet the UK Government is not doing enough to promote non-chemical solutions. This continues to be a key threat to the success of the National Pollinator Strategy.
Pesticides are not the only problem. Too often important habitats for pollinators and other wildlife continue to be lost or damaged. Some 98% of wildflower meadows have already been lost in the UK since the 1950's. The loss of key habitats from our wider countryside makes wildlife more dependent on protected sites.
The sea-aster mining bee, for example, is now dependent upon protected salt marsh on the east coast of England. But in December 2014, the Government revealed that just 3% of the most precious wildlife sites in England were in good condition in 2013 - down from 6% in 2007.
Our remaining meadows need stronger safeguarding from badly located development and the impacts of intensive farming - the Bee Coalition wants more meadows to be listed as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) to strengthen their protection.
The creation of new bee habitat by volunteers, councils, and businesses - from schools to pub gardens to extensive urban meadows - is extremely welcome. But we need Government leadership on this issue too, along with funding to ensure that extensive new and connected, habitat is created.
One of the NPS commitments - the new Countryside Stewardship Scheme - offers payments to farmers for taking actions for pollinators. But at the same time the UK Government has missed an opportunity to ensure that taxpayers money is used to help farmers help pollinators.
A new 'Greening' scheme links one third of the subsidies received by farmers to new environmental requirements, such as obligations to create 'Ecological Focus Areas'. In England, the Government has chosen to offer farmers the maximum amount of flexibility in how they implement Greening, meaning that there's no guarantee it will deliver improvements for pollinators and other wildlife in the farmed landscape. This needs to be changed.
We need a stronger National Pollinator Strategy
The National Pollinator Strategy is a welcome and much needed initiative. But if it is to be effective it must be strengthened, including:
- a permanent ban on neonicotinoid insecticides and an action plan aimed at reducing overall use of all pesticides;
- stronger incentives for farmers to use bee-friendly farming techniques;
- tougher protection for remaining bee habitats, such as wildflower meadows, to ensure they are not lost to development;
- the creation of extensive and connected flower-rich bee-friendly habitat across our countryside, farmland and urban landscapes.
Bees are crucial for our food, farming and countryside - we can't afford to gamble with their future.
The report: 'Policies for Pollinators - The Need for Government Leadership in Backing England's Bees' is published today by the Bee Coalition.
Action: What you can do to save our bees.
Sandra Bell is bee campaigner at Friends of the Earth.
The Bee Coalition includes Buglife, ClientEarth, Environmental Justice Foundation, Friends of the Earth, Natural Beekeeping Trust, Pesticide Action Network, Soil Association and The Wildlife Trusts.