By Kent Barker

In a few weeks’ time millions of bees will emerge from hives across Sussex and southern England ready to pollinate our plants and provide us with honey. This year, though, they face an existential threat as
a result of – yes, you guessed it – Brexit.

Since 2013 neonicotinoid pesticides (neonics) have been subject to increasing bans in European Union countries because they kill bees. Even bees exposed to sub-lethal levels can have problems with flight and navigation and reduced taste sensitivity which impact foraging ability and productivity.

Bee on cosmos
PICTURE: Tim Clifton

Farmers oppose ban as further damning evidence emerges
The European restrictions were strenuously opposed by farmers – especially those growing cereals including oilseed rape and sugar beet.  But a complete EU ban on the outdoor use of neonics was introduced in 2018 as new evidence of the serious dangers of the pesticide emerged from studies in Canada as well as in the UK, Germany and Hungary. However, within just a few days of Britain leaving the union, the UK government authorised the use of the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam for the treatment of sugar beet seed in 2021.

Sussex Wildlife Trust Planning Joint Legal Action
It has led to an extraordinary flurry of opposition.  A broad coalition of environmental groups – including the RSPB, The Soil Association, The CPRE, WWF, Friends of the Earth and wildlife trusts up and down the country – have written to the Environment Secretary George Eustice in protest. The Sussex Wildlife Trust said they believe the action may have been unlawful and are planning a joint legal challenge to the government’s decision. Professor Dave Goulson of the University of Sussex said there have been a number of  scientific publications linking neonicotinoids to declines of birds and other vertebrates as well as bees.

Bee on sedum
Picture: Mike Leale

Threat to Burn Baby Bees
Meanwhile the government has told British beekeepers they could be prosecuted if they try to import bees into the UK from Europe. Patrick Murfet of the Kent-based firm, Bee Equipment Ltd, has been a passionate keeper for nearly 20 years. He regularly imports bees from the warmer climes of Italy where he has a contract to breed them for the British market. However, this year he has been told that his 15 million ‘baby’ bees could be destroyed by burning if he attempts to import them from Italy. “DEFRA has banned all direct imports,” he told the Hastings Independent, “so I considered moving the bees within the EU to the Republic of Ireland and then under the Northern Ireland Protocol up to Belfast – which is the UK – and from there to Stranraer in Scotland. But a local DEFRA official said he believed that would be illegal and I could be fined, and the bees destroyed.”

British Beekeepers Lose Two Million Euro Subsidy
Following national publicity for Mr Murfet’s predicament, questions have been tabled in Parliament.  However, he says there are other fall-outs from Brexit with the UK losing a subsidy of around two million euros a year from Brussels specifically to support bee-keepers.  And he is also worried about the reintroduction of neonicotinoids. “No one wants to see them used in the UK” he told HIP. 

Neonicotinoid Timeline

• Neonicotinoids or neonics are insecticides, chemically similar to nicotine, they act upon the nervous system.

• 1985: Imidacloprid patented as the first commercial neonicotinoid by Bayer.

• Early 2000s: Clothianidin and Thiamethoxam neonicotinoids enter the market.

• 2008: Germany revokes registration of Clothianidin for use on seed corn following the death of millions of honey bees.

• 2009: Neonicotinoid seed treatment banned in Italy after studies show bee deaths linked to treated seeds.

• 2013: European Food Safety Authority  says neonicotinoids pose an unacceptably high risk to bees.

• April 2013: EU member states vote to restrict use of three neonicotinoids for two years. 

• The UK votes against the bill saying scientific evidence doesn’t support it.

• 2018: The temporary ban becomes permanent in all EU States. The move is supported by the UK. France goes further and bans all types of neonicotinoid pesticides.

• 2018 – 2020: Various EU states grant emergency authorisations of neonicotinoid use on sugar beet.

• 2021: UK government allows use of a product containing the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam for the treatment of sugar beet seed in 2021.

• Broad coalition of environmental groups campaigns to have decision overturned.

•  Petition to Parliament calling for decision to be reversed, attracts 48,000 signatures by mid-February.

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