Beekeeping is on the rise, but we need better pollinator policy
The UK public’s bee-positivity is growing, and so is resistance to neonicotinoids.
The health of bees and other pollinator populations are crucial to maintaining our natural ecosystems. Around one third of our food is pollination-dependent, and the value of pollinators to the UK economy is estimated at around £690 million per year.
Evidence suggests that public interest in keeping and supporting honeybees, a key pollinator group, is growing.
The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) is an organisation dedicated to educating and training beekeepers and supporting bee research. Membership has seen an exponential increase, from around 26,000 members in 2018, to just over 30,000 in 2021.
Year-on-year growth from 2020 to 2021 was 5.46%, compared to 4.55% in the previous year, and 3.15% from 2018 to 2019.
A representative of the BBKA suggests that coronavirus accelerated this trend:
“The pandemic clearly meant that more people, confined to their homes, took up beekeeping as a hobby.”
The BBKA suggests there are an increasing number of UK beekeepers not just because people are in need of a hobby, but because an increasing number of people are concerned with the cultivation and protection of bees.
Significant and unexplained colony losses in the US prompted a flurry of campaigns in the UK in recent years, improving the perception of bees and promoting their cause.
Statistics from BeeBase support the suggestion that beekeeping is becoming more popular. Although there was a slight fall in numbers between 2019 and 2020 this was more than reversed in 2020 and 2021.
And yet despite this growth in honeybee cultivation, there are threats to bees and other pollinators that public enthusiasm alone cannot overcome.
Neonicotinoids and other threats
One such risk is posed by neonicotinoids, described by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as ‘a worldwide threat to biodiversity, ecosystems, and ecosystem services.’
They were banned by the EU in September 2020 but now, for the second year in a row, the UK government has approved the bee-killing neonicotinoid thiamethoxam for emergency use on sugar beet crops, despite the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) advising against.
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George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recognised in the official approval publication that there is uncertainty over the risks posed to pollinators. But he argued:
“Potential risks to bees can be mitigated to a low level, and, with strict controls are outweighed by the benefits of use in these circumstances”
The BBKA are firmly against the approval, and Chair Stephen Barnes said:
“The Government has not followed the science. Permitting the use of this dangerous neonicotinoid pesticide puts all pollinators at risk.”
Thiamethoxam is not the only potential chemical that is threatening pollinators as a result of UK government policy.
The chemicals carbon tetrachloride; chlorothalonil; chlorpropham; ethoprophos; fenamidone; methiocarb; propiconazole; pymetrozine are banned in the EU – but the UK has delayed making a decision on whether to limit the chemicals on food imports into the UK.
Chlorothalonil especially has been identified as a hugely significant factor linked to a steep decline in bumblebees. If the UK allows imports from places where the chemical is used, there is potential they are encouraging damage to ecosystems and pollinators outside of the UK.
The BBKA told us, with regard to the potential for further approvals:
“As for further derogation we would oppose them. No insecticide is safe for bees.”
A Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs spokesperson told us:
“We base decisions on the use of pesticides on robust scientific assessment and will not authorise pesticides that may carry unacceptable risks to people or the environment.”
However, they did not rule out their use completely until a decision is made later this year.
A healthy future for bees?
Government policy in some ways contradicts its previously asserted aims. DEFRA’s Healthy Bee Plan, launched at the end of 2020, promised to protect honey bees. It seems the government is still pursuing policies that threaten them.
Even if the numbers of honeybee hives have increased, wild pollinator species with less protection and no beekeepers to cultivate them are continuing to decline. If environmental agencies and advisory groups are correct, the honeybee may soon follow.
It appears that if they are to maintain the respect of environmental and wildlife groups, and the wider UK public, the government will have to clarify its priorities and demonstrate a commitment to the long-term future of the ecosystem and plight of pollinators.
Lottie Hayton is London-based journalist writing primarily about art, literature and technology. You can follow her on Twitter.