Brexit - a nasty sting in the tail for Britain's bees?

Vote Leave and it won't just be the EU that disappears in a trail of regret - the laws that protect our bumble bees could disappear too
Britain's bees are under threat from Brexit and moves to allow farmers to use banned bee-harming 'neonictinoid' pesticides, warns Dave Timms, Bees Campaigner with Friends of the Earth. With 20 species extinct since 1900 and a further 35 under threat, how much more can our bees take?
Farming minister George Eustice hit out at 'spirit-crushing' Brussels directives and said the UK could develop a more flexible approach to environmental protection if it left the EU. He reportedly said that 'the Birds and Habitats Directives would go'.

The next few days will be critical for the well-being of Britain's bees.

The outcome of Britain's referendum will clearly have a major impact on the nation's future direction but this is also true for our environment, which has significantly benefited from EU membership, with cleaner beaches and air, and better protection for our wildlife.

And Brexit would come - almost certainly - with a huge sting in the tail for Britain's under-threat bees.

Since 1900, the UK has lost 20 species of bee, and a further 35 are now considered under threat of extinction. None are properly protected by law and Europe-wide, nearly one in ten wild bee species face extinction.

Habitat protection

However, this picture would be gloomier still if Britain were no longer part of the EU. European nature rules have proved vital for protecting bee habitats and the plants they feed on and have included a number of our more iconic nature sites such as Salisbury Plain, the Pevensey Levels, parts of the South Downs, and the saltmarshes of North Norfolk.

EU-protected sites are also vitally important for some of our rare bee species that struggle to survive in the surrounding intensively farmed countryside. Without EU nature laws crucial habitats will be less well protected putting these amazing insects at higher risk.

Last month farming minister and Brexit enthusiast George Eustice hit out at "spirit-crushing" Brussels directives and said the UK could develop a more flexible approach to environmental protection if it left the EU. He has been reported as saying that "the birds and habitats directives would go."

This is one of the reasons Friends of the Earth is urging the Britain's voters to vote Remain on Thursday.

NFU applies to use banned bee-harming pesticides - again

Pesticides are a significant threat to our bees, and thanks to the EU the use of three bee-harming chemicals, known as neonicotinoids, are banned across the continent because of the "high acute risk" to honeybees - a move that the UK government vigorously opposed.  

The National Farmers Union (NFU) is battling hard to try and persuade the government to give special permission for farmers to use these restricted chemicals on oil seed rape crops in certain parts of England. Buoyed by successfully getting the green light from the government last year to use these neonicotinoids, the organisation is trying to get permission to use them again this year.

Farming minister George Eustice hit out at 'spirit-crushing' Brussels directives and said the UK could develop a more flexible approach to environmental protection if it left the EU. He reportedly said that 'the Birds and Habitats Directives would go'.

This application was turned down earlier this year but a new and modified application has now been made - and a decision from the government is expected within days.

The secrecy surrounding the application process has been astonishing - and has rightly been criticised. Citing commercial confidentiality, the detail of the NFU emergency application has been kept secret from both the public and MPs. Only last week a cross party group of MPs slammed the lack of transparency.

"Sound science is publicly challengeable science", the MPs wrote. "It is not a body of experts who say 'we will not allow anyone to see the evidence we have for placing the public at risk, but we are eminent persons so trust us'."

Environment-friendly farming

The NFU says the neonicotinoids are needed for pest control. However, official statistics have shown that average UK oilseed rape crop yield actually grew by nearly seven percent in the first year after the pesticides were banned. Meanwhile evidence of the threat these pesticides cause to our bees, and other wildlife, has increased.

Some farmers have responded to the ban on neonicotinoids by using older pesticides. But this may well be counter-productive. The unintended victims of these chemicals are likely to be pest-munching insects such as parasitic wasps and carabid beetles, which can play an important role in keeping pest numbers down.

The effectiveness of neonicotinoid pesticides is increasingly under question, and a focus on environmentally friendly alternative methods of crop protection is long overdue.

We believe a less chemical-intense approach to farming will produce a win-win for food production and the environment. Measures to promote a biodiverse landscape, rich with wildflowers and good hedgerows provide an ideal habitat for bees and pest predators, which together can help protect and pollinate crops - and help us move to countryside forever free from neonicotinoids.

Great British Bee Count

The Great British Bee Count, which is running until the end of this month, is aimed at people who are interested in our bees, and want to find out more. It encourages people to discover the diversity of our bees (there are over 250 bee species in this country alone), and take steps to help them by planting bee-friendly gardens and other spaces.

With a free app, that's easy to use, people can send in details of the bees they spot. Thousands of people have already taken part, with over a quarter of a million recorded so far. The app also allows people to send in photographs too - and a huge number of stunning photos have already been received.

The plight of the humble bee

Britain's bees are crucial for our plants and crops, along with other insects they help pollinate 75% of the world's major crops. They look after us; we must look after them.


Dave Timms is the bee campaigner for Friends of the Earth. Follow him on Twitter @davetimms.

More information on Friends of the Earth's Bee Campaign.