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The buzz on bee pesticides: Australia should consider a ban

The European Union has just banned three pesticides thought to affect the learning behaviour of bees. The two-year ban, which takes effect in December, is in response to a dramatic drop in bee numbers…

Many Australian crops rely on pollination by bees: we should think about following the EU’s lead on banning pesticides that affect them. djfrantic/Flickr

The European Union has just banned three pesticides thought to affect the learning behaviour of bees. The two-year ban, which takes effect in December, is in response to a dramatic drop in bee numbers across the Middle East, Europe and the US. The pesticides are still in use in Australia.

The insecticides - imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, known collectively as neonicotinoids - affect the central nervous system of insects. Lab results have shown bees' ability to learn is reduced by exposure to the pesticides, and that bee colonies suffer as a result.

But scientists working with pesticide companies say these results are not borne out in the field. Additionally, these pesticides are very useful for crops because they protect them very well and are relatively cheap and easy to administer.

Pollination in Australia

The use of these pesticides here should concern us. Honeybees pollinate human food crops worth around AU$4-6 billion annually in Australia. Much of our pollination is done by bees - not just honey bees but also native bees. We are talking about crops like broad beans, canola, sunflowers, but also lucerne and pastures, and many of our fruit trees.

Many crops are using the free pollination services provided by the bees, but others, such as almonds, use commercial bees.

Therefore any negative impact on the honey bee industry, either through honey production or as pollinators of Australian crops and pastures, has huge implications for Australia’s food security.

What do these pesticides do to bees?

We think these insecticides could be having an effect on bees. When they were introduced into the lab, honey bee numbers reduced considerably. At the moment there’s been no direct field evidence to say these insecticides are causing major problems, but there’s a strong potential there - too strong too ignore.

The pesticides don’t generally kill bees, but they reduce bee performance. Even though we don’t see huge numbers of bee deaths occurring, there are sub-lethal effects - that is a reduction in bee performance in pollination, and a reduced reproductive ability (that is, fewer offspring) and poor larval development.

Over a large area or large crop, any reduction in performance of a bee colony would have a major impact.

When the lab work has been taken into the field, we haven’t seen those impacts because of all the variables that take place. But because there has been such a big reduction in bee numbers due to colony collapse, the EU has set up this two-year ban. It’s really a precautionary ban.

Other threats to bees

In colony collapse, bees just disappear from their hives. Why they do it is not really well understood. There’s been an implication it is linked to pesticides but it’s not fully clear.

Bees come into contact with insecticides and, because they are social insects, they take the insecticides back to their hives, where they build up over time. Another problem is hives being infested with a pest called varroa mites.

Australia is considered varroa mite-free, but recently the Asian honey bee, which carries the mite, was introduced into Australia. Those bees, introduced via ship, were first detected in Portsmith, Cairns in 2007, and are now moving south.

A more variable climate, induced by anthropogenic climate changes, will also change the way bees behave, when they can forage and the quality of the nectar they have access to. More extreme temperatures will change the plant physiology, the pollen available to bees, as well as the bee physiology, bee behaviour, and the bee’s local environment.

Australia should consider banning these pesticides too. We use the same chemicals as the EU and we have the same reliance on bees for pollination. The EU is usually a long way ahead of Australia in terms of pesticide regulation. We don’t know what what potential these chemicals have to cause major problems. We haven’t got the science. But this is a great example of where the precautionary principle should be invoked.

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  1. Chris Strudwick

    Human

    To get a few facts straight, the three neonicotinoid pesticides at issue (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam) have not been banned. There is a moratorium on the use of these insecticides on plants attractive to bees, most importantly oilseed rape (canola) and sunflowers, which must be reviewed within two years. The underlying reason is not any new and scary evidence of harmfulness to bees but rather lack of conclusive evidence that it is not harmful in proper use. Earlier, the EFSA admitted…

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    1. Shirley Birney

      logged in via email @tpg.com.au

      In reply to Chris Strudwick

      Excerpts at random, from a leaked US EPA document stated that:

      “Clothianidin’s major risk concern is to nontarget insects (that is, honey bees). Clothianidin is a neonicotinoid insecticide that is both persistent and systemic.

      “Acute toxicity studies to honey bees show that clothianidin is highly toxic on both a contact and an oral basis.

      “Both high and low efficiency incorporation resulted in acute risk to freshwater invertebrates in North Carolina and Mississippi cotton…….”

      http://www.panna.org/sites/default/files/Memo_Nov2010_Clothianidin.pdf

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  2. Tyson Adams

    Scientist and author

    CCD is such a complex problem. Whilst the neonicotinoids are part of that problem, they aren't all of the problem.

    It is important to remember that they were developed from natural nicotine pesticides in plants as a lower toxicity pesticide to previously used organophosphates and carbamates, as well as for their selection for insects instead of mammals (etc).

    Banning of neonicotinoids would essentially force farmers into using the more toxic and dangerous organophosphates, carbamates and organochlorides for insect control. That is a really bad idea. I think it would be better to develop an agronomic program that reduces the impacts on "good" insects, whilst still controlling the "bad" insects. This may even be as simple as how often the neonicotinoids can be used.

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  3. Laurie Willberg

    Journalist

    Suppose someone seriously investigates the effects of GMO organisms on bees.
    It's rather a no-brainer that insects that have been going about their business for thousands of years are suddenly dropping dead from consuming nectar/pollen from plants that have been bio-engineered to produce their own pesticides. Pesticide=death of insects. Need anyone say more?
    One civilian independent researcher had his research of 20 years confiscated by the FDA in the U.S.. Wonder why?

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    1. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Laurie Willberg

      Wow. What faultless logic. Colour me convinced.

      Except for the fact that Bt crops don't impact bees...... http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0001415
      http://entomology.umd.edu/files/entm/documents/mhwg/bee_NTO_paper.pdf

      Also, different insecticides do different things to different types of insects.

      Also, GMO is just the breeding technique. Inclusion of a carotene gene is not going to make any difference to an insect, but a Bt gene might. Sweeping generalisations like this display nothing more than fear-mongering.

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    2. Laurie Willberg

      Journalist

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      "Two of the authors, Jian Duan and Joseph Huesing, are employed by Monsanto Company, which produces and markets Bt crops"
      Wow, Tyson, or should I say, Tim? 2 Monsanto employees have concluded that GMO crops "don't impact bees".
      That's like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank.
      GMO is "just a breeding technique" for splicing pesticides into plants.

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    3. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Laurie Willberg

      Displaying your continued ignorance of genetics and GM is one thing, but dismissing the research in two separate papers based on your dislike of the funding of the scientists in only one of the papers, is just plain stupidity.

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  4. Luke Weston

    Physicist / electronic engineer

    "But this is a great example of where the precautionary principle should be invoked."

    All too often, the so-called "precautionary principle" is actually implemented in practice as something like the following:

    - Make up some hypothesis and assume that it's positively true, irrespective of the science/evidence base.
    - Make political decisions accordingly, as though the hypothesis you've made up is positively true.
    - When challenged on the evidence base, the response is something like "hey scientists, prove the negative!"

    When we see this sort of behaviour in the name of the "precautionary principle", it is hard to accept because it is so deeply, fundamentally incompatible with science.

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    1. Laurie Willberg

      Journalist

      In reply to Luke Weston

      I'm sure Dr. Frankenstein would have had no problem with your logic. The rest of us aren't so sure.

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    2. Tyson Adams

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Laurie Willberg

      You can't assume that a fictional character is a fan of basic logic, especially when you don't seem to understand it yourself.

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    3. Shirley Birney

      logged in via email @tpg.com.au

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      Speaking of fictional characters, Tim Scanlon "who is primarily involved in the agriculture industry," is your alter ego, is he not?

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    4. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      Of course. Thanks for reading my bio where I clearly state this is my author account, and my science publication history shows this.

      I can't discuss why I now use this account rather than my other account, but I'm not hiding anything.

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    5. Shirley Birney

      logged in via email @tpg.com.au

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      Well "Tyson" it's rather strange that you provide us with a photograph with the head chopped off in your bio and alas, your bio makes no reference to your alter ego, one Tim Scanlon. I certainly trust this flimflam is not the status quo for all scientists:

      https://theconversation.com/profiles/tyson-adams-4986/profile_bio

      Perhaps then, we can all assume a false identity on the TC with impunity? You would be au fait with the old adage: "No surnames, no court martials."

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    6. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      I have a profile with verifiable links to actual accounts, an actual bio and list of science publications.

      You have no profile, you're logged in with an email, you post an attack on me and not my argument, and yet you have the audacity to suggest I am using a "false identity."

      Like I said, I can't go into why I had to start using my author account instead of my normal account. If you were not an anonymous internet troll I would be able to email you personally and explain the reasons.

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    7. Laurie Willberg

      Journalist

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      That's because Tim Scanlon is closely associated with a group of media "skeptics" who never met a chemical/pesticide/GMO they didn't like.
      And anyone who disagrees with them is a "troll", "anti-science", "scientifically illiterate", etc.

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    8. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Laurie Willberg

      Wow, "media skeptics" is a funny way to describe The Australian Skeptics Society.

      Given the aims of said same are outlined here: http://www.skeptics.com.au/about/our-aims/

      So, Laurie, your claims actually say more about your use of logic, evidence, rational thought and science than myself or the Australian Skeptics.

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    9. Shirley Birney

      logged in via email @tpg.com.au

      In reply to Laurie Willberg

      Indeed and that was a catatonic tirade from one who "has nothing to hide." And if Tyson Adams (whatever) has nothing to hide, why post under a pseudonym?

      Any which way, someone's being duped.

      Shirley Birney aka Shirley Birney

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    10. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      Why do you post under an anonymous email that is not linked to any Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Amazon, Webpage accounts, have photos, nor has any actual biographic information?

      My accounts are all linked, all open, are all verified. The same cannot be said for either yourself nor Laurie (for a person claiming to be a journalist, there is a lack of her articles anywhere).

      But again, this is just a distraction from the points that you both seem to resort to ad hominem and other logical fallacies rather than discuss the topic at hand.

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    11. In reply to Tyson Adams

      Comment removed by moderator.

  5. John Holmes

    Agronomist - semi retired consultant

    While we are discussing the role of these chemicals, has there been any clarification of the role of Verona mites in this issue. Australia is one of the few places not yet infested by these parasites. Control measures for these pests can be a bit rough on the bees as well as the damage to the bees.

    I guess this also suggests that some careful examination of the relative susceptibilities of bees to both man made and natural toxins, as well as for parasites may be warranted. Improving resistance to such compounds may be useful, provided that there is no accumulation of toxins in the product. Common good R&D?

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    1. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to John Holmes

      It would be good for some R&D under Australian conditions. We do use different rates and application methods into different conditions, so we really do need some local data to see what is what.

      Although, there probably are a few entomologists in Australia that have been doing some work in this area. It may be just a case of getting their research cited.

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