The neonicotinoids investigated caused a reduced capacity for all three bee species to establish new populations
Honeybee colonies in the UK suffered the lowest levels of winter survival when exposed to neonicotinoid pesticides, according to industry-funded research published yesterday.
Researchers from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) have published the results of a large-scale, field-realistic experiment to assess neonicotinoid impacts on honeybees and wild bees across Europe in the peer-review journal Science.
Louise Payton, Soil Association policy officer, told The Ecologist: “This long-awaited major study was funded chiefly by industry to end this debate. This should now be the final, fatal blow to neonicotinoids.
"With neonics widely polluting farms, and with UK farmers still treating most wheat, an outright ban is needed immediately. But a ban isn’t enough - neonics never should have been cleared for use.
"We also need a rethink of how we regulate all pesticides. Vulnerable wildlife is not being protected. A good next step would be to learn from organic farms, which support around 50% more species of wild pollinators than non-organic farms.”
The experiment – undertaken in the UK, Germany and Hungary – exposed three bee species to winter oilseed rape crops treated with seed coatings containing neonicotinoid clothianidin, from Bayer CropScience, or Syngenta’s thiamethoxam.
Neonicotinoid seed coatings are designed to kill pests such as the cabbage stem flea beetle, but were effectively banned in the EU in 2013 due to concerns regarding their impact on bee health.
The researchers found that exposure to treated crops reduced overwintering success of honeybee colonies – a key measure of year-to-year viability – in two of the three countries.
In Hungary, the colony numbers fell by 24 percent during the following spring. In the UK, honeybee colony survival was generally very low, but lowest where bees fed on clothianidin treated oilseed rape in the previous year. No harmful effects on overwintering honeybees were found in Germany.
Lower reproductive success – reflected in queen number (bumblebees) and egg production (red mason bee) – was linked with increasing levels of neonicotinoid residues in the nests of wild bee species buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) and the Red Mason Bee (Osmia bicornis) across all three countries.
Dr Ben Woodcock, the CEH lead author, said: “The neonicotinoids investigated caused a reduced capacity for all three bee species to establish new populations in the following year, at least in the UK and Hungary.”
He suggests the differing impacts on honeybees between countries may be associated with interacting factors including the availability of alternative flowering resources for bees to feed on in the farmed landscape as well as general colony health, with Hungarian and UK honeybees tending to be more diseased.
In contrast, the hives in Germany happened to be larger, showed little evidence of disease and had access to a wider range of wild flowers to feed on.
Dr Woodcock suggests that this may explain why in this country alone there was no evidence of a negative effect of neonicotinoids on honeybees.
The study - which spanned 2,000 hectares, equivalent to 3,000 full-scale football pitches - took account of bee disease and surrounding landscape quality in addition to colony growth rate, worker mortality and overwinter survival.
Dr Woodcock said: “Neonicotinoid seed dressings do have positive attributes: they target insects that damage the plant, can be applied to the seed at low dosage rates but protect the whole plant and reduce the need for broad spectrum insecticide sprays.
“Their use as an alternative chemical control option is also useful in controlling pests where insecticide resistance to other pesticides is already found, so play an important role to play in food production.”
He added: “There may be opportunities to mitigate negative impacts of neonicotinoid exposure on bees through improved honeybee husbandry or availability of flowering plants for bees to feed on across non-cropped areas of the farmed landscape. Both these issues require further research.
“The negative effects of neonicotinoids on wild bees may also be the result of diverse mechanisms of exposure that include persistent residues of neonicotinoids in arable systems due to their widespread and often very frequent use.”
Professor Richard Pywell, a co-author and the Science Area Lead, Sustainable Land Management at the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology, said: “Neonicotinoids remain a highly contentious issue with previous research on both honeybees and wild bees inconclusive.
“This latest field study was designed, as far as possible, to reflect the real world due to its size and scope.
“We therefore believe it goes a considerable way to explaining the inconsistencies in the results of past research, as we were better able to account for natural variation in factors like exposure to the pesticide, bee food resources and bee health for different bee species.
“Our findings also raise important questions about the basis for regulatory testing of future pesticides.”
Bayer CropScience and Syngenta funded the research assessing the impact of neonicotinoids on honeybees. The Natural Environment Research Council funded the analysis of the impact on the wild bees.
The experiment - including design, monitoring and analysis - was scrutinised by an independent scientific advisory committee chaired by Professor Bill Sutherland of Cambridge University.