Scientists from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) have come under fire for suggesting neonicotinoids are harmful to bees in a new report.
The research, which cost over £1 million and was funded by Bayer and Syngenta, was the first large-scale, field-realistic experiment to look at the impact of neonicotinoids on honeybees and wild bees.
It took place across three countries, Germany, Hungary, and the UK, and monitored three bee species.
The scientists claimed exposure to treated crops reduced the overwintering success of honeybee colonies – a key measure of viability – in Hungary and the UK. No harmful effects were found in Germany.
Lower reproductive success was also linked with increasing levels of neonicotinoid residues in the nests of wild bees across all three countries.
Lead author of the study Dr Ben Woodcock 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 suggested the German hives may have fared better because they were larger, less diseased and had access to a wider range of wild flowers to feed on.
While taking no issue with the data itself, Bayer has criticised the conclusions the CEH scientists have drawn.
Julian Little, head of communications and government affairs at the company, said there was little or no difference between the colonies foraging on treated and untreated crops in the vast majority of cases.
“It is strange CEH has chosen to highlight the really very few statistically significant results in the data”, he added.
“They are very much focused on a low-level reduction in honey bee colonies in the UK, and then they dismiss the fact that in Germany, honeybees actually did better on treated oilseed rape than they did on non-treated oilseed rape.”
Mr Little also claimed the UK data showed no impact of neonicotinoids on bumblebees and solitary bees, but when combined with the evidence from Germany and Hungary, it appeared as though there was.
“I do feel the authors have looked at the data and thought what can we get out of it”, he said.
“There is a big difference between the data they have presented and the conclusions they have drawn from it.”
Chief science and regulatory affairs adviser at the NFU, Chris Hartfield, agreed. He said: “This study does not show neonicotinoids are causing widespread declines in bee populations given that it shows positive as well as negative effects of neonicotinoids on bees, and in the majority of cases there is no effect at all.”
But Friends of the Earth (FOE) pounced on the study as evidence to support a permanent ban on neonicotinoid use on all crops – a move which has been described as ‘wanton vandalism’ by Bayer.
FOE nature campaigner Sandra Bell said: “This crucial study confirms neonicotinoid pesticides come with a nasty sting in the tail for our under-pressure bees – it is time for a complete and permanent ban on these chemicals.”
The new report follows recent controversy around moves from Conservative MEP Julie Girling to block a ban on neonicotinoids in the European Parliament.
The attempt was heavily defeated, with 43 MEPs voting against, eight in favour and seven abstentions.
Ms Girling said she had intended to highlight procedural, legal, scientific and environmental concerns which were not reflected in the Commission’s proposal to ban neonicotinoids.
“I am receiving criticism for my position largely from organisations which want to ban all pesticides indiscriminately”, she added.
“I do not share this aim. I think it is time to have a grown up discussion about the sustainable use of agri-chemicals.”
Ms Girling’s actions prompted Labour’s Shadow Defra Secretary Sue Hayman to write an open letter to Mr Gove in which she asked him ‘not to remain silent’ on the issue.
It is Labour Party policy to introduce a complete and immediate ban on neonicotinoids.