David's blog posts

Are robotic bees the future?



Robot bee


There have been a number of scientific papers published in recent years discussing the possibility of building miniature flying robots to replace bees and pollinate crops. Clumsy prototypes have been tested, and seem to crudely work. If crops could be pollinated this way, farmers wouldn’t have to worry about harming bees with their insecticides. With wild bee populations in decline, perhaps these tiny robots are the answer?

While I can see the intellectual interest in trying to create robotic bees, I would argue that it is exceedingly unlikely that we could ever produce something as cheap or as effective as bees themselves. Bees have been around and pollinating flowers for more than 120 million years; they have evolved to become very good at it. It is remarkable hubris to think that we can improve on that. Consider just the numbers; there are roughly 80 million honeybee hives in the world, each containing perhaps 40,000 bees through the spring and summer. That adds up to 3.2 trillion bees. They feed themselves for free, breed for free, and even give us honey as a bonus. What would the cost be of replacing them with robots? Even if the robots could be built, complete with power pack and control devices, for one penny each (which seems absurdly optimistic) it would cost £32 billion to build them. And how long would they last? Some would malfunction, some would get caught out in the rain, some would be damaged by wind or spiders’ webs. If we very optimistically calculate the lifespan at one year, that means spending £32 billion every year (and continually littering the environment with trillions of tiny robots, unless they could be made biodegradable). What about the environmental costs of manufacture? What resources would they require, what carbon footprint would they have? Real bees avoid all of these issues; they are self-replicating, self-powering, and essentially carbon neutral.    

Thus far I have glossed over a vital further point. Pollination is not all done by honeybees. Numerous other insects pollinate crops and wildflowers, including butterflies, beetles, moths, flies, wasps and many more. These come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes suited to different flowers. Honeybees contribute at best 1/3 of crop pollination, averaged across crops. So we wouldn’t just need to replace the 3.2 trillion honeybees. We’d also need to replace countless trillions of other insects. All to replace creatures that currently deliver pollination for free.

Declines of bees are symptomatic of larger issues. It is not just bees that are declining; almost all wildlife is declining in the face of massive habitat loss and pollution across the globe. Even supposing we could create robot bees cheaply enough for it to be viable, should we? If farmers no longer need to worry about harming bees they could perhaps spray more pesticides, but there are many other beneficial creatures that live in farmland that would be harmed; ladybirds, hoverflies and wasps that attack crop pests, worms, dung beetles and millipedes that help recycle nutrients and keep the soil healthy, and many more. Are we going to make robotic worms and ladybirds too? What kind of world would we end up with?

Do we have to always look for a technical solution to the problems that we create, when a simple, natural solution is staring us in the face? We have wonderfully efficient pollinators already, let’s look after them, not plan for their demise. 

On neonicotinoids and impartiality in scientific research.



Last week my group posted online a lengthy review of new evidence (post 2013) relating to the possible risks posed by neonicotinoid insecticides to the environment: 

“The Environmental Risks of Neonicotinoid Pesticides: a Review of the Evidence Post-2013”

By Thomas James Wood, Dave Goulson

doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/098897

Free to view here: http://biorxiv.org/content/early/2017/01/06/098897

Funded by Greenpeace.

The rationale for compiling this review was that, in 2013, the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) published a series of reports on three neonicotinoids (imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin) which concluded that these chemicals pose an “unacceptable risk to bees”.  This conclusion led to the current EU moratorium which prevents the use of these three chemicals on flowering crops that bees might visit. EFSA are currently re-evaluating the position in the light of new scientific studies, and are expected to report back soon to the EU with a recommendation as to whether the moratorium should be rescinded, extended indefinitely in its current form or broadened to cover other uses (e.g. on non-flowering crops). It has been suggested that EFSA are compromised by close links with the agrochemical industry (though I have seen no evidence of this). Certainly industry are lobbying strongly to overturn the moratorium.  

Greenpeace asked us to write our own, independent review of the new evidence. Our review will make an interesting comparison with that produced by EFSA (now expected September 2017). Greenpeace paid the salary of my just-finishing PhD student, Tom Wood, for 4 months to complete this work with my help. For the record, other than Tom’s salary, they have not given any money to me or my lab, either recently or in the past. However, this does raise interesting issues about impartiality. I have previously pointed out that studies funded by, or carried out by, the agrochemical industry almost never find that neonicotinoids harm bees, while independent studies very often do find strong evidence of harm. This worries me because science depends completely on the honesty and impartiality of the experimenter. It is all too easy to bias results, consciously or subconsciously, in either direction. When patterns like this emerge, what is the lay-person to make of it? Sadly, it undermines public trust in science, at a time when good scientific evidence, and trust in this evidence, is urgently needed if we are to find a way through the myriad of terrifying environmental problems we are creating (climate change being an obvious example).     

So when we were offered money by a campaign group to write this review, we had to think very carefully. Greenpeace gave us written assurances that they would not attempt to influence what we wrote in any way, and they did not. Nonetheless, I am sure that some will say that this is just as flawed as industry evaluating the safety of their own chemicals. Of course there is one fundamental difference. When an agrochemical company conducts research on the safety of its own chemicals, it has a huge incentive to find a negative result. Pesticide sales are worth (literally) many billions of dollars per year. On the other hand, Tom and I get no direct benefit from publishing articles about pesticides, whatever we say. We might be more likely to get funding from Greenpeace in the future if they like what we write, so perhaps we are compromised to some extent too. On the other hand, if we published research that concluded that neonicotinoids were harmless we might be more likely to get funding from industry (though I think I may have burned that bridge long ago!), and industry has an awful lot more money than Greenpeace. So it is not clear that we have an obvious incentive to be biased, consciously or subconsciously, in one way or the other.

Nevertheless, I worry about impartiality and objectivity every day. I ask myself whether I am analysing patterns in the data correctly, or am I looking to confirm my own subconscious biases? When we conduct experiments in my lab, we try to report both negative and positive results as best we can (though journal editors don’t much like negative results). We recently published a paper which showed that low doses of the neonicotinoid clothianidin did not seem to have a measureable effect on learning or egg-laying in worker bumblebees (https://peerj.com/articles/1808.pdf ). If I had some sort of strange personal agenda to get neonicotinoids banned why would I publish this? With over 260 scientific publications to my name, I am not in desperate need of one more, and it might have been convenient to let this one slide, but we did not. We even paid the journal fees to get it published.   

Having spent six years studying neonicotinoids, I am pretty convinced that they are contributing to wildlife declines, not just those of bees. Hundreds of scientific studies from a huge diversity of different scientists on different continents conclude that they are harming bees, butterflies, aquatic insects, even birds and perhaps now bats (while a few studies found no effects). The balance of evidence seems to me to be overwhelmingly in one direction, despite industry efforts to obfuscate. That is my opinion, and it is not for sale. Unavoidably, all scientists in any field have opinions. Does this make us bad scientists? I hope not.

Of course, in an ideal world all research of this type would be funded entirely independently of stakeholders on either side. We don’t live in that world. So, if you have time, read the review. Make up your own mind whether it is fair or not.

The review contains no new data; it is simply a summary of what has been published in the scientific literature in the last four years. We have taken the unusual step of posting it on Biorxiv so that others can comment. This review has not yet been formally published; it is a work in progress. We encourage any interested party to give their opinion: have we missed critical information, have we wrongly interpreted studies? Once we have received comments, we hope to submit a final version for formal publication. This is not a procedure I have ever followed before, but seems to be a growing trend in this age of rapid, digital, open-access publishing.

So, comments please….


Will the UK retain the neonicotinoid moratorium post-Brexit?



A couple of weeks ago the Society of Chemical Industry held a meeting in London to discuss “Are neonicotinoids killing bees?” As you might guess from the name of the people organising it, this seems to have been a rather one-sided affair; a bunch of lobbyists from the agrochemical industry, and a hand-picked selection of scientists consisting overwhelmingly of those known to have pro-pesticide leanings and/or receive funding from the agrochemical industry. I was unable to attend this travesty of a meeting, but I did get a chance to hear how it was reported on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today, and BBC gave me two minutes to give an off-the-cuff response to comments made by two attendees, Norman Carreck[1] (of Sussex University and the International Bee Research Institute) and Peter Campbell (of Syngenta). Here I give a slightly more detailed and considered response.

            Norman’s summary can be paraphrased as “It is all complicated and confusing, we can’t really be sure what harms bees. The moratorium on neonic use on flowering crops[2] is forcing farmers to use older, nastier chemicals that we know little about. This could be worse for bees than using neonics”. Peter stated categorically that in real world situations neonics don’t harm bees. He pointed to an authoritative Swedish study, the largest field trial yet performed to examine the effects of neonics on bees, which found no effect on honeybees of placing their colonies next to a treated oilseed rape crop for one year (Rundlof et al. 2015). Any politician listening to this would be inclined to think that the scientific evidence against neonics is far from clear, and that the current moratorium might be doing more harm than good. Of course this is exactly what the meeting was intended to achieve – job done. The pesticide industry makes billions of dollars every year from these chemicals, and spreading doubt and confusion is a great tactic to prevent policy makers from taking further action, and to encourage a post-EU UK government to abandon the moratorium altogether.

            Let’s look at what we actually do know with certainty about neonics:

1) These are very widely used neurotoxins, applied extensively to many arable, horticultural and ornamental crops, and also found in veterinary products such as flea treatments for dogs and cats. They have high persistence so last for years in soil (Goulson 2013; Bonmatin et al. 2015). They are water soluble and are now routinely found in streams and ponds around the world (Bonmatin et al. 2015). They are also found in the pollen and nectar of wildflowers growing near treated crops (Botias et al. 2015; David et al. 2016), as well as in the pollen and nectar of the crop itself.

2) When we place honeybee or bumblebee nests onto farmland, the pollen and nectar stores that they gather often contain a cocktail of several neonics (and a bunch of other pesticides, mainly fungicides). Concentrations of neonics in their food typically range from 1 to ~10 ppb, sometimes more (which of course means that your breakfast honey also likely contains these neurotoxins) (Botias et al. 2015).

3) If we dose honeybees or bumblebees in the lab or in cages with food spiked with these same concentrations of neonics (i.e. between 1 and 10ppb), we get the following range of effects: reduced longevity, impaired immune response, impaired learning, reduced egg laying in queens, reduced fertility in males (reviewed in Pisa et al. 2015; Straub et al 2016). [Note that not every single study finds the same effects and a few have found no effects, presumably due to differences in methods, the particular neonic and dose used, the age and health of the bees used, the bee species studied etc. It isn’t simple, but the overwhelming evidence is that neonics do harm bees at field-realistic doses]

4) When bumblebee colonies are exposed to field realistic doses (Whitehorn et al. 2012; Arce et al. 2016) or exposed to treated crops in a field setting (Goulson 2015; Rundlof et al. 2015), the colonies perform very poorly, grow slowly and produce few queens.

5) Solitary bees perform poorly when near treated crops; fewer wild bees are found on the crop itself, and Osmia bees fail to nest entirely near treated crops (Rundlof et al. 2015). 

6) Declines of wild bees and butterflies in the UK strongly correlate with geographic patterns of neonic use (Woodcock et al. 2016; Gilburn et al. 2015). [The pesticide industry immediately respond to this by saying “correlation is not proof of causation”. Of course this is also what the tobacco industry said about cancer and smoking. Correlation is not proof, but it is good confirmation of other evidence]    

7) When honeybee colonies are exposed to treated crops, the deleterious effects on individual bees described in (3) do not seem to translate into significant harm to the colonies, at least inside a single year (e.g. Pilling et al. 2013; Cutler & Scott-Dupree 2007; Rundlof et al. 2015). Note that all but one of these studies (Rundlof et al. 2015) were performed by the agrochemical industry themselves or funded by them, and thus should probably be treated with a pinch of salt. If we take them all at face value, this does not rule out the possibility that exposure to neonics might contribute to colony loss in the longer term, for example by reducing queen longevity/ fecundity, but it does seem that there is no dramatic and immediate effect on honeybee colonies in the way that there is with bumblebees and solitary bees. Perhaps the very large colonies of honeybees buffer them against the impacts of pesticides, at least in the short term.  

Overall, the case that neonics harm bumblebees is iron-clad. There are dozens of studies from lab to full field experiments that provide a convincing and coherent body of evidence. The case that neonics cause honeybee colonies to die has not been proven beyond doubt, though it would seem highly likely that having their food laced with neurotoxins at doses that are known to leave individual bees susceptible to disease, dazed and confused isn’t helping them cope with their many other problems.

To return to the comments of Peter and Norman. Peter was being deliberately disingenuous. In referring to the Swedish study (Rundlof et al. 2015) as demonstrating that neonics do not harm honeybees he was relying on the audience being ignorant of the fact that there are many other types of bee, and that this very study showed devastating effects on bumblebees and solitary bees which he thought better than to mention [in case you don’t know, bumblebees are enormously important pollinators of crops and wildflowers, as are some wild solitary bees – in the UK, honeybees contribute no more than ~30% of crop pollination, the rest coming from wild insects].

Norman’s “it is complicated and confusing” is a cop-out. Science is complicated, that is why it takes years to train as a scientist, but it is our job to make sense of the evidence and summarise it in a useful and clear way. It is pretty clear to anyone even a little familiar with the scientific literature on wild bee declines and honeybee colony losses that these phenomena are due to multiple causes, including loss of flower-rich habitat, spread of parasites and diseases, and exposure to pesticides (Goulson et al. 2015). If we want to address bee declines we need to tackle all of these issues, and we need to do so with urgency, not stand around arguing about which is worse or saying we need to do more research before we take any action. 

Norman’s point that the neonicotinoid ban has forced farmers to use older, nastier chemicals that we know little about is interesting, and is an argument I have heard trotted out many times by the agrochemical industry. The neonic ban led UK farmers to increase spraying with pyrethroids in September (on young oilseed rape crops). These are older chemicals, but to say that we know little about them is nonsense. They have been in use for decades and are very well studied. If they were sprayed onto a crop at the time of flowering they would kill lots of bees. However, spraying them in September onto seedling oilseed rape is likely to have minimal impacts on bees; most wild bees are gone by then, and honeybees have no reason to be visiting the crop. Pyrethroids have very low persistence compared to neonics, so they will be not hang around until the spring when the crop flowers. Norman knows this well, since he spent most of his career working at Rothamsted, the very place that developed pyrethroid insecticides. Of course it would be better still if farmers investigated non-chemical means of managing their crop pests whenever possible, adopting an Integrated Pest Management approach, but that is for another day.

Despite what the agrochemistry industry and their supporters say, the evidence linking neonics to bee declines is overwhelming. But industry will continue to say that black is white, that neonics don’t harm bees, just as some continue to deny climate change because it suits their financial interests. As the American author Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it”. We urgently need to put pressure on our politicians to ensure that they ignore this rubbish and take proper steps to prevent the wholesale pollution of our countryside with persistent neurotoxins. More broadly, we need to find ways to reduce the grip of the chemical manufacturers on the way we grow food. Like Brexit or not, it provides a golden opportunity, freeing British farming from the Common Agricultural Policy, and making it possible to steer it away from industrial, chemical farming towards more sustainable methods. If we do not, we will lose bees and much else of our wildlife for ever.    


References (links provided wherever possible)

Arce, AN et al. 2016. Combining realism with control: impact of controlled neonicotinoid exposure on bumblebees in a realistic field setting. Journal of Applied Ecology, October 2016 DOI: 10.1111/1365-2664.12792

Bonmatin J-M., Giorio C., Girolami V., Goulson D., Kreutzweiser D., Krupke C., Liess M., Long E., Marzaro M., Mitchell E., Noome D., Simon-Delso N., Tapparo A. 2015. Environmental fate and exposure; neonicotinoids and fipronil. ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & POLLUTION RESEARCH 22: 35-67.

Botías, C., David, A., Horwood, J., Abdul-Sada, A., Nicholls, E., Hill, E., Goulson, D. 2015. Neonicotinoid residues in wildflowers, a potential route of chronic exposure for bees. ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY 49: 12731-12740.

Cutler GC, Scott-Dupree C (2007) Exposure to clothianidin seed-treated canola has no long-term impact on honey bees. J Econ Entomol 100: 765–772

David, A., Botías, C., Abdul-Sada, A., Nicholls, E., Rotheray, E.L., Hill, E.M. & Goulson, D. 2016. Widespread contamination of wildflower and bee-collected pollen with complex mixtures of neonicotinoids and fungicides commonly applied to crops. ENVIRONMENT INTERNATIONAL 88: 169-178.

Goulson D. 2015. Neonicotinoids impact bumblebee colony fitness in the field; a reanalysis of the UK’s Food & Environment Research Agency 2012 experiment. PEERJ 3:e854.

Goulson, D. 2013. An overview of the environmental risks posed by neonicotinoid insecticides. JOURNAL OF APPLIED ECOLOGY 50: 977-987.

Goulson, D., Nicholls E., Botías C., & Rotheray, E.L. 2015. Combined stress from parasites, pesticides and lack of flowers drives bee declines. SCIENCE 347: 1435-+.  

Pilling et al. 2013; A Four-Year Field Program Investigating Long-Term Effects of Repeated Exposure of Honey Bee Colonies to Flowering Crops Treated with Thiamethoxam. PLOSOne http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0077193

Pisa L., Amaral-Rogers V., Belzunces L.P., Bonmatin J-M., Downs C., Goulson D., Kreutzweiser D.P., Krupke C., Liess M., McField M., Morrissey C.A., Noome D.A., Settele J., Simon-Delso N., Stark J.D., Van der Sluijs J.P., Van Dyck H. and Wiemers M. 2015. Effects of neonicotinoids and fipronil on non-target invertebrates. ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & POLLUTION RESEARCH 22: 68-102.

Rundlof et al. 2015 Seed coating with a neonicotinoid insecticide negatively affects wild bees. Nature 521: 77-80

Straub, L. et al. Neonicotinoid insecticides can serve as inadvertent contraceptives. Proc. Roy. Soc. B doi : 10.1098/rspb.2016.0506

Whitehorn PR, O'Connor, S., Wackers, F. L. & Goulson, D. 2012. Neonicotinoid pesticide reduces bumble bee colony growth and queen production. Science, 336, 351-352

Woodcock, B.A. et al. 2016. Impacts of neonicotinoid use on long-term population changes in wild bees in England. Nature Communications 7, 12459.


[1] Norman Carreck asked me to add the following statement from himself:

"Norman Carreck has tried to remain objective throughout the debate about pesticides and bees. As he has stated publicly before, apart from his university undergraduate project in 1984 (a study looking at reducing fertiliser use on oilseed rape), which was funded by the then ICI Fertilisers Ltd, he has never worked on any project funded by any agrochemical company, nor has he ever received any private payment from any agrochemical company. He has also never worked on any project funded by any environmental campaigning organisation or pressure group, and has never received any private payment from any environmental campaigning organisation or pressure group".

[2] In the EU a moratorium was introduced in 2013 preventing the use of neonics on flowering crops such as oilseed rape. However, they remain very widely used on cereals and other crops, and total usage continues to rise year on year, according to Defra statistics (PUSSTATS website). As I have mentioned in previous blogs, yields of crops on which neonics can no longer be used have been as high or higher than usual since the moratorium. 

“Bee Informed” – but not by this propaganda




Pop in to your local Homebase, find the long aisles where the plethora of garden pesticides are arrayed, and you will now find glossy leaflets prominently displayed with a picture of a bumblebee on the front, entitles “BEE INFORMED - WHEN USING INSECTICIDES IN YOUR GARDEN”. So far so good, I can’t really argue with that. But read on.

Inside the leaflet, you will learn that bees are important. Excellent stuff. Then you will be told that bee health has been compromised, and that “A number of culprits have been identified, including:

• Parasitic mites such as Varroa

• Bacterial, fungal and viral diseases

• Habitat loss and degradation

• Genetic factors”

All true, but you might be thinking that there is an obvious omission from this list. Read on, and you will learn that “Some claims have also been made of a possible link between the decline in bee populations and the use of some insecticides. This has not been shown scientifically”. Hmmm.

The “some insecticides” they refer to are presumably neonicotinoids, the controversial chemicals that have been at the heart of a ferocious debate for ten years or more. Neonicotinoids are the active ingredient in many garden insecticides, and you may well also drip them on the neck of your dog or cat to prevent fleas. A group of scientists at the European Food Standards Agency spent six months examining the safety of these chemicals, and concluded that they pose an “unacceptable risk”. As a result, a majority of European countries voted for a ban on several of the most widely used neonics on flowering crops that bees might visit (the UK government opposed, of course). Since then, a huge review of over 1,000 scientific papers was written by 28 scientists from all over the world (I was one), under the auspices of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and it concludes that neonics are harmful to bees and pose a serious threat to biodiversity. On top of that, The European Academy of Sciences published a huge report on the subject last year, written by a team comprising a leading scientist from every European state. Their findings echoed the earlier reviews; these chemicals are damaging to bees and other wild insects. None of this is particularly surprising; these are highly poisonous neurotoxins that kill insects of any sort in minute, near-infinitesimal doses. They are also highly persistent, sometimes lasting for years in soil and plants.       

So who produced this wildly misleading leaflet? The Crop Protection Association, the Horticultural Trades Association, and the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA). The first two come as no surprise; these are essentially wings of the agrochemical industry, pushing their poisons as usual. But the BBKA? Really? Shame on you.

The leaflet goes on to say that “Provided that garden care products are used as directed on the label, they will not pose a problem to bee health.” Yet a recent Swedish study, published in the most prestigious scientific journal in the world (Nature), showed huge impacts of neonics on bumblebees and solitary bees when the chemicals were used by farmers ‘as directed on the label’. Remember that, 50 years ago, the agrochemical industry assured us the DDT was safe, until it turned out that it wasn’t. Later, they told us that organophosphates were fine, except they weren’t. Do you believe them this time? I don’t. 

The simple truth is that none of the array of chemicals on sale in your local garden centre are necessary. I have a two acre garden that I manage singlehandedly, while having a full-time job, and I manage to grow heaps of flowers and veg. It isn’t the tidiest garden ever, but it looks wonderful (to me anyway!). Every year my broad beans are attacked by a horde of black bean aphids, but after a week or two an army of ladybirds, hoverflies, lacewings and tiny parasitoid wasps come to the rescue, and in no time they are gone. The bean plants look a bit dog-eared, but they recover and give a great harvest. No need for insecticides. I’m ashamed to admit I used to use glyphosate, and I still have an old pot of it in the shed still, but since the World Health Organisation announced that it is highly likely to be carcinogenic[1] I have stopped using it. Hoeing works just fine, and I have kids and pets in the garden.   

To be honest, I expect nothing else from the pesticide industry. They are a hugely powerful and rich lobby that spends a fortune trying to convince us that we need their products. But why does Homebase push their propaganda? I guess money is the answer. Why does the BBKA support it? Do their members agree? I’m pretty sure that most of them don’t. The senior management of BBKA have always had an oddly cosy relationship with the agrochemical industry, to the horror on many of the BBKA members who I have spoken to. I guess that money has changed hands at some point.

The leaflet also mentions the Royal Horticultural Society as a source of further information, though it is not clear if RHS endorse it. I sincerely hope not.

We should boycott Homebase until they stop displaying this leaflet (my boycott started today, but on my own I don’t think that will bring them to their knees). We should campaign for these chemicals to be withdrawn entirely from garden use. I would love to see ALL pesticides banned for use in the garden; there is just no need, no need at all.  


The leaflet can be downloaded from the Crop Protection Association directly here:


[1] Glyphosate, a herbicide, is the most widely used pesticide in the world. It is in most foods we eat. Recent studies have found significant levels of glyphosate in urine of almost every German of 2,000 tested, with the highest levels in children.  

Crop yields higher than ever without neonics



In the run up to the vote on a EU-wide moratorium on use of neonicotinoids on flowering crops, which came about because of a growing body of scientific evidence that they were doing significant harm to bees, the agrochemical industry produced glossy documents declaring that this moratorium would cause massive reductions in crop yields, huge job losses in the agriculture sector, etc. etc.. You can read one such report here: http://www.hffa.info/files/wp_1_13_1.pdf This tells us that, if the moratorium were to go ahead, “the EU could lose 17 billion EUR and more; 50 thousand jobs could get lost economy-wide; and more than a million people.. would certainly suffer..”. They wanted us to believe that farmers couldn’t grow crops without these chemicals.

As you probably know, the moratorium went ahead, though the UK voted against it, presumably won over by such arguments. Now we are in the second year of the moratorium, we can start to evaluate whether this was true. Annual spring-sown crops that were sown in 2014 without neonics (sunflower and maize) have now been harvested. And the yields? Across the EU, which includes regions with a broad range of climates, yields were HIGHER that the five year average, in some regions more than 25% higher. You can see this for yourself at: http://mars.jrc.ec.europa.eu/mars/Bulletins-Publications - have a look at the December 2014 Bulletin [1].  Whatever happened to the crop devastation predicted by industry? It now starts to look like a lot of hot air and bull***t.

Right now, there is a pitched battle in Ontario – the state government is proposing major restrictions on neonics, and the agrochemical industry are pulling out all the stops to prevent it, perhaps because they fear that other parts of North America might follow suit if Ontario go ahead. They published a full page “Open letter to Ontarians” in several major newspapers, in which they claim that neonics don’t harm bees, and that they are “vital” to farmers.  Déjà vu? Ontarians might do well to look at Europe when weighing up the truth of these claims. I for one am not inclined to believe them.  

All this also makes me wonder - what other chemicals has industry been telling farmers they need, when actually they don't? How much of pesticide use is based on evidence, and how much on marketing hype/ sales pressure?

[1] Note that oilseed rape is autumn sown so the first crop without neonics wasn’t sown until August 2014, we won’t see the yields until summer 2015]

Dave Goulson's research lab website

Biodiversity v Intensive Farming; Has Farming Lost its Way?



[This blog was posted as a guest blog on the Journal of Animal Ecology website, 16 Jan 2015, duplicated here for those that check my Uni blog]

Modern intensive farming produces plentiful, cheap food but is reliant on heavy use of agrochemicals and is a major driver of the ongoing collapse of wildlife populations. Taxpayers pay billions each year to support this system, with the bulk of this money going to the biggest, richest farming operations. In this blog I examine how we got to this unhappy position, question the need to further increase food production given current food waste, and suggest that we need to move towards a more sustainable, evidence-based farming system, with a source of independent advice for farmers, rather than allowing the agrochemical industry to shape the future of farming.  

It is not politically correct to criticise farmers or farming. We are brought up on stories about the adventures of a playful piglet who lives on a farm with a sheepdog, half a dozen chickens and a smiling cow, all presided over by a rosy-cheeked farmer, his wife and their two children. Farmers might also be portrayed as custodians of the land, where the countryside that they look after is filled with the sound of skylarks singing, bumblebees buzzing amongst the hedgerows, and butterflies flitting across sunlit, flowery meadows. 

Farming is of course the most fundamentally important of human activities; without farms and farmers, we would quickly starve. Going back to hunter-gathering is not an option. What is more, the human population is growing, and therefore we must increase food production. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) declared in 2010 that we must double food production by 2050, and this rationale is used to justify the drive for ever-increasing yield. One might argue that we should focus all our research on increasing yield at all cost, else our grandchildren will starve.

These are two quite different views of farming, the former obviously wildly inaccurate, but in both the farmer is the hero. Of course there is a contradiction between the two, a fundamental conflict. The drive to increase food production has resulted in an intensive farming system that is scrubbing wildlife from the face of the land. In Europe, we have good long-term data on populations of birds, butterflies and moths, and the overwhelming pattern is that most species are in retreat (e.g. Fox et al. 2014 J Appl. Ecol. 51: 949-957; Inger et al. 2015). Rather few larks are still singing, and most of the butterflies are gone.  A recent study by Inger et al estimates that bird populations in Europe have fallen by 420 million in the last 30 years. Groups for which we have less precise data, such as bees and beetles, also seem to be going the same way. For the UK this depressing pattern is summarised nicely in RSPB’s 2013 “State of Nature” report, which makes bleak reading. In short, farmland wildlife underwent massive declines through the twentieth century and in the twenty first century is still in rapid decline. Indeed, recent data for butterflies suggest that declines in many farmland species are accelerating

This continued decline is, on the face of it, puzzling. In Europe very large sums of tax-payers money are spent on agri-environment schemes: money paid to farmers to implement mechanisms to increase wildlife[1]. On the whole, farmers do not grub out hedgerows any more, or plough up ancient hay-meadows. They are more likely to replant hedgerows and attempt to restore flower-rich grasslands. Yet this does not seem to be working, for wildlife continues to disappear. What has gone wrong?

I would argue that there are two explanations. The first is that much of the funding for agri-environment schemes is wasted. The basic entry-level greening measures are so unambitious that a lot of farmers have to do next to nothing to qualify. There is little policing of what they actually do, and implementation of some schemes often fails. Wildflower strips on field margins are a good example – intended to support pollinators, they often don’t establish well, and end up containing nothing but coarse grasses. There are some shining examples of farmers who have successfully implemented a range of such schemes with measurable benefits for wildlife, but they are few and far between. [Note that these schemes have recently been revised in Europe, but overall funding has been cut and many farmers currently in the higher level schemes will soon find themselves getting no agri-environment subsidies at all, so it is unlikely that there will be a net improvement]  

The second relates to the way crop production systems have developed. Forty years ago there was substantial government funding for agronomic research. In the UK, we had many state-owned experimental farms where scientists developed new crops and devised integrated pest management programs. Rachel Carson’s famous 1963 book “Silent Spring” had highlighted the potential dangers of over-reliance on pesticides, and there was great interest in biological control agents, trap crops, rotations, cultural controls, use of resistant varieties, and so on. Today, most of those experimental farms have gone, or become essentially privatised, in attempts at cost-saving by successive governments. Industry has stepped in to fill the gap, shaping agriculture to its own ends. Now, agronomic funding comes almost entirely from the private sector – particularly the big companies that manufacture pesticides and develop GM crops. Most of the agronomists that advise farmers work for agrochemical companies (the figure is 71% in the UK[2]). Most arable farms in the UK use a minimal rotation –wheat, wheat, oilseed rape. Crops are commonly treated with ~20 different pesticides in a season[3], many of them applied prophylactically. [Ask yourself this: if you were growing veg in your garden for your family to eat, would you be comfortable spraying them with a cocktail of 20 different insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and molluscicides? If the answer is no, why are you happy buying food from the supermarket?]. The principles of IPM seem to have been discarded along the way. We have allowed current farming systems to be moulded by industry, and their goal is not to feed poor people in developing countries. Nor is it to look after wildlife, or worry about the long-term sustainability of production systems. It is to make the biggest profit that they can. Minimising pesticide use would be good for the environment, good for the long-term sustainability of farming, good for the farmer, and good for the consumer. But it won’t make big agrochemical companies rich.

Consideration of the current risk assessment procedures for new agrochemicals sheds some light on the failure of the current system. Typically, the safety of agrochemicals is examined by conducting acute toxicity tests for each compound on non-target organisms such as rats and bees, and comparing the response to plausible exposure scenarios in the field. So long as the animals are unlikely to receive a dose in the field anywhere near that which produces harm in short-term lab tests, all is regarded as well. These data are generally not made public, so they cannot be inspected or evaluated by independent scientists. There is currently no requirement to demonstrate that the new product provides a significant improvement in yield; such trials are presumably conducted by industry (well, one would like to think so), but are not made public. Under the current system, once a new product is on the market, farmers have little in the way of reliable, independent information available to them as to either the environmental risks posed or the efficacy of each product. They are largely reliant on the companies that manufacture the chemicals to advise them as to which ones they should use, with competing manufacturers providing conflicting advice, and all with a strong incentive to prescribe more use than may be necessary.

The current agrochemical regulatory system is clearly woefully inadequate.  In the real world, non-target organisms living in farmland are chronically exposed to multiple agrochemicals throughout their lives, not one at a time in a single dose. We know that these chemicals do not always act additively; for example some fungicides, while being of very low toxicity to insects in themselves, can greatly increase the toxicity of insecticides when an insect is simultaneously exposed to both. Such interactions will only be discovered when the chemicals have been approved and are in widespread use, which is far too late if one wishes to prevent environmental harm.

Interactions between agrochemicals, and the consequences of chronic rather than acute exposure, are just two important aspects that the current regulatory system fails to capture. Complex interactions also occur between agro-chemicals and other stressors. For example, low doses of pesticides which would produce no measurable effect in a lab toxicity trial can impair the immune system of honey bees, rendering them susceptible to viruses. Hungry animals (such as bees in flower-poor intensive farmland) are also more susceptible to both toxins and disease than well-fed lab stocks.  In short, our current regulatory system does not come anywhere close to approximating the complexities of the real world, and as a result we have failed to adequately protect biodiversity from the many stressors imposed by modern farming.

Of course it would never be possible to conduct realistic, long-term tests on every plausible combination of chemicals and other stressors. Perhaps we simply have to accept that modern, intensive farming is necessary if we don’t want to starve, and that loss of our wildlife is an unavoidable price that we have to pay?

I would suggest that there is a way forwards, but that we need a radically different, holistic and transparent approach based on scientific evidence. We need long-term farm-scale studies of crop production systems, comparing both the yield, profitability and the consequences for biodiversity and ecosystem services of different systems (e.g. conventional versus a reduced input, “Integrated Pest Management” approach versus organic). Such studies need not be enormously expensive, for the farms would still be productive. Surprisingly few studies have simultaneously compared profitability and biodiversity benefits across farming systems, yet this is the fundamental trade-off in food production. Indeed, for most agrochemicals there is currently little publicly available evidence as to what yield benefits they individually provide[4]. If a new chemical, crop or farming system were to be proposed, and provided that it passed some basic safety tests, it could then by trialed alongside existing approaches. Only if a new product significantly increased yield, or was found to have positive benefits for biodiversity, or both, would it be approved. Such a system would evaluate new products in the context in which they would be used in the real world, rather than highly unrealistic trials as currently used. New agri-environment schemes could be evaluated using the same framework. All such studies should be open access. This has parallels to the laudable move to “evidence-based medicine” whereby new drugs or therapies are only approved following trials demonstrating that they provide a significant improvement over existing treatments. At present, our farming systems are not evidence-based, and what evidence that is available is hidden.     

I would also argue that we should question the drive towards further yield increases. People are not starving because we don’t grow enough food. In India, obesity is now a bigger problem than starvation. We grow more than enough food, but estimates suggest that nearly half of what is grown goes to waste, and many of us eat far more meat and many more calories than is good for us. In the developed world we spend less on food, as a proportion of income, than we ever did – food is cheap. It is a disgrace that anyone is still starving, but it has nothing to do with food production.  Indeed, if one could largely eliminate food waste then every farm in the world could go organic and, even with the concomitant reduction in yield, there would still be more than enough food to go around.    

Without a radical overhaul of farming systems, and of the way agronomic research is funded and conducted, there is no doubt that we will lose a significant portion of our biodiversity. Even for those that don’t give a damn about wildlife, this ought to be a major cause for concern because we depend upon wildlife to deliver the ecosystem services that underpin food production. We should be focussing on sustainable production of healthy food, not on producing more cheap, pesticide-laced food and then throwing half of it away. In our rush to increase yields, based on an ill-conceived notion that this is needed to feed the world, we run the risk of irrevocably damaging our environment and hence our food production system, so that our grandchildren really do starve. 


Dave Goulson

(twitter: @DaveGoulson)

[1] The EU gives out €59 billion per year in total in subsidies to farmers. Most of this is dished out as single farm payments, which are more-or-less payments simply for owning the land. There is currently no cap, so some major landowners receive millions in subsidies. For example in France, the 160 biggest farm holdings receive €123 million between them. The UK fought hard, and succeeded, in blocking EU proposals to cap subsidies at €300,000 per farmer. The vast majority of this money does not go to poor farmers in marginal areas who might be deserving of support. One might question why such extra-ordinary sums of tax-payers money should be given to rich people or corporations to enable them to continue to farm in a way that is destroying our natural heritage.  

[2] This figure was provided by an independent agronomist, Caroline Corsie, but I am unable to find official figures.

[3] I have quotes this figure before, and it has been heavily criticised. It was originally based on surveys of arable farms in East Sussex in south east UK, which applied between 18 and 21 different pesticides to each wheat or oilseed rape field in 2013 (some of them multiple times). I’ve heard it said that we must have found the most intensively farmed fields in England. However, Defra’s own statistics demonstrate that this is spot on – their PUSSTATS website is open access, and one can obtain information on the total area of arable crops in Britain, and the total area treated with pesticides. The latter is almost exactly 20 times the former, demonstrating that the average arable field receives 20 applications. This average includes organic farms, so the mean for conventional farms must be higher.  

[4] This was recently highlighted by an astonishing revelation from the USA Environmental Protection Agency. They revealed a number of studies showing that application of neonicotinoid seed dressings to soya beans has zero impact on yield. At the advice of agronomists, farmers had been routinely applying neonics to soyabeans over 30 million ha, at an annual cost of $240 million. This seems to refute the oft-used argument “Farmers aren’t fools – they wouldn’t waste money on pesticides they didn’t need”. 

Neonics, crop losses, and ‘green activists’ – a plea for a little more accuracy in the media



I warn you now: this blog won’t be of much interest unless you’ve been following the neonic debate closely. It is in response to an opinion piece in the Telegraph by Christopher Booker (6 December 2014) and several recent blogs in a similar vein.

The gist of the article by Booker is that a group of dodgy scientists and green activists working for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) got together in 2010 and plotted to get neonics banned. They are said to have received £350,000 of EU money via the IUCN to fund this work, which ultimately resulted in the current moratorium on neonics. This moratorium has, according to Booker, “done huge damage to agriculture all over Europe”. He cites a recent EU report as saying that the cost to UK farmers alone already stands at £640 million. Booker goes on to say that there is no good evidence that neonics harm bees. He states that Defra’s own field trials had shown no damage to bees, whereas the IUCN group relied only on highly artificial laboratory experiments to reach their conclusions. He finishes with the bold claim that Owen Paterson, who fought against the moratorium and cited the Defra field trial in support of his position, was “easily the best-informed and most effective Defra secretary of state we’ve ever had”.

This all sounds like a great tale of dodgy doings, but let’s look at the actual facts for a minute. There is a group of scientists, linked to IUCN, who published a series of peer-reviewed scientific review papers on the impacts of neonics on the environment in summer 2014. These papers are all available for anyone to read at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11356-014-3470-y. They are simply a review of the existing evidence – if you are really interested, read them yourself, and you can decide whether they are any good. I was asked to join this group in summer 2012, with a view to helping to write these papers, and it seemed like a good idea – the group contains many well-respected scientists from all over the world, bringing together diverse expertise. Scientists commonly come together in this way to write lengthy reviews of important topics. It is wildly inaccurate to say, as Booker does, that we relied “only on highly artificial laboratory experiments” – our reviews examined and describe hundreds of studies, many of them conducted in the field. The Defra field trial to which Booker attaches such weight was a total cock-up since all the ‘control’ bees became exposed to pesticides, so it was never published.      

You might wonder whether I received a share of the £350,000 for my contribution. So far as I know, there never was £350,000. I received nothing – in fact on the one occasion when I attended a meeting of this group I had to pay my own travel expenses. The whole thing was done on a shoestring, as meetings of scientists usually are. I did get a free cup of coffee. 

So what about the central claim that this group somehow engineered the neonic ban? The ban was proposed in January 2013, as a direct result of the European Food Standards Agency publishing three reports on neonics which concluded that they posed an “unacceptable risk” to bees. This was voted through in April 2013, and began in December 2013. Our reviews were not published until the summer of 2014, 16 months AFTER the ban was agreed in the European Parliament. So unless members of the European Parliament are able to see into the future, it is hard to see how their decision could have been influenced in any way by a group that had not at the time published anything whatsoever.

Finally, what about the “huge damage” that the neonic ban has done, and this figure of £640 million in crop losses in the UK alone?  I follow this topic closely, but have not heard of any such report. £640 million would represent the loss of about 12% of Britain’s entire agricultural output (including arable, dairy, horticulture etc.). Since the moratorium really only applies to oilseed rape, this would require the entire crop to have been wiped out (the total annual value of this crop varies between about £400 million and £700 million). However, the first sowing of oilseed rape without neonics in the UK was august 2014. About 1.5% was lost to flea beetle, according to the Home Grown Cereal Authority. Yes, that is correct - so 98.5% of the crop is fine. The crop won’t be harvest until summer 2015, so we have no way of knowing what the yield will be, or what losses, if there are any, might be due to the absence of neonics. So where on earth does this figure come from? Perhaps Booker also possesses the gift of foresight, and has foreseen a biblical plague of locusts in the spring?

Given all these wild inaccuracies, the claim that climate-sceptic Owen Patterson was “easily the best-informed and most effective Defra secretary of state we’ve ever had” starts to seem quite reasonable by comparison. Why do newspapers publish such twaddle?



PS To learn more about the neonicotinoid story, try reading chapter 13 of my new book, “A Buzz in the Meadow”

Are crops being devastated without neonicotinoid protection?



Response to article by Matt Ridley in the Times, 6 October. Note that the Times refused to publish a (shorter) response that I sent to them:

To: letters@thetimes.co.uk


Dear Sir,


On 6 October, the Times published an opinion piece by Matt Ridley on the impacts of the neonicotinoid moratorium on farming. These insecticides are the subject of a partial 2 year ban introduced by the EU because of the perceived risk they pose to bees. Ridley asserts that oilseed rape crops are now being devastated because they are not being protected by these insecticides, claiming that in some regions up to 50% of the crop has been lost. He argues that there is “literally no good science linking neonics to bee deaths in fields” and that the moratorium only came about because “green lobby groups… have privileged and direct access to... European officials”. He goes on to claim that there is no evidence that bees are declining, and that they will be worse off if there is less oilseed rape for them to feed on as a result of the moratorium. He even sneaks in a quick go at badgers, suggesting that they may be the main problem that bumblebees face. In short, he says the moratorium is a typical barmy bit of EU legislation that is crippling farming for no good reason, no better than the apocryphal EU restrictions on the shape of bananas.


I’m one of the scientists who have been conducting this “no good” science, so you might not be surprised to hear that I have a rather different view of the situation. The EU decision was taken only after a team of scientists at the European Food Standard’s Agency had spent 6 months reviewing all the scientific evidence. They concluded that neonics pose an “unacceptable risk” to bees, and hence a majority of EU counties voted for the moratorium. The UK’s Environmental Audit Committee, a cross-party group of MPs, came to the same conclusion, and urged our government to support the ban. The US Fish & Wildlife Service also concurred, and have banned use of all neonics on land they administer. Most recently, a team of 30 scientists, of which I was one, reviewed 800 papers on this topic and in a series of 8 articles published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research, concluded that “The combination of prophylactic use, persistence, mobility, systemic properties and chronic toxicity [of neonicotinoids] is predicted to result in substantial impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning”.


These neurotoxins persist in soils for years, and they are now known to be found in hedgerow plants, streams and ponds. One teaspoon is enough to deliver a lethal dose to 1.25 billion honeybees (it would kill half of them, and leave the others feeling very unwell).  But they do not just pose a threat to bees; any insect living on farmland or in streams that flow from farmland, and any organisms that depend on insects for food (e.g. many birds and fish) are likely to be affected.


The backdrop to all this is that over the last 60 years arable farming has become highly dependent on a blizzard of chemical inputs. Many crops are treated with twenty or more pesticides each year, and grown in vast monocultures with minimal use of rotations and negligible attention paid to encouraging natural enemies that can help to control pests.

There is little space left for nature. As a result, European wildlife populations are collapsing. RSPB’s 2013 “State of Nature” report summarizes the state of play, and it is bleak reading – most farmland wildlife groups for which we have data are overwhelmingly in decline. According to British Trust for Ornithology data, 44 million breeding birds vanished from the British countryside in the last decades of the 20th century.  


Conservation organizations are fighting a losing battle. To claim that they have “privileged” access to politicians is bizarre; never have green politics been so low on the agenda. It seems rather more plausible that those who profit from promoting intensive farming, particularly the agrochemical industry, are the ones with access to regulators and policy makers. Sales of neonics alone are worth $3billion pa, so that industry can afford to employ armies of lobbyists. Many EU countries have folded under pressure from industry and allowed farmers derogations to use neonics during the ban. Following the recent stories of oilseed rape losses in the UK, Defra have allowed farmers to spray different types of neonics onto their crops, while others have resorted to sprayed their rape seedlings up to 5 times with pyrethroid insecticides already this autumn, at the same time complaining that pyrethroids don’t work because the pests are resistant (so why use them?). In these circumstances the moratorium is worse than useless, but surely there is a better, more sustainable way forwards? We need to find ways to grow crops without damaging the environment. If rape cannot be grown in some areas without blitzing it with neurotoxins, then perhaps farmers should consider growing something else entirely? If they tried to wean themselves off their chemical dependency, introduced more diverse crop rotations, left small areas for wildlife, and tried to encourage natural enemies of their pests, they might find that their problems got better.


What of Ridley’s claim that oilseed rape crops are being wiped out because they are no longer protected by neonicotinoids? He is not the first to say this. In May, the NFU Vice President Guy Smith claimed on Farming Today that 70% of the Swedish spring oilseed rape crop had been wiped out by pests following the introduction of the neonic moratorium. This was wildly incorrect – when eventually official figures emerged, the yield was down just 5%. Two days ago Defra revealed official figures on the extent of the damage in the UK – 1.35% of the crop has been lost (http://www.hgca.com/press/2014/october/08/csfb-crop-losses-estimated-at-27-in-hgca-funded-%E2%80%98snapshot-assessment%E2%80%99.aspx). Note that some crops are lost every year, with or without neonics. So why would a senior politician (Matt Ridley is a tory Lord and brother-in-law to Owen Paterson) and VP of the NFU want to grossly exaggerate the damage, and hence by implication suggest that farmers cannot grow crops without neonics? This is not in the farmer’s best interests, or that of the environment, or that of consumers. One might be forgiven for wondering if they weren’t actually working for the agrochemical industry.


Finally, will bees suffer if farmers grow less oilseed rape because of the moratorium, as Ridley asserts? I doubt it. Bees need a steady supply of food through the year, not a four week spring glut followed by famine because there are few wildflowers. In any case, if you were offered a feast of food laced with a neurotoxin, or a more modest meal of unpoisoned food, which would you opt for? In a sense, that is the choice that we all face right now.


Dave Goulson is Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex. He is author of the bestselling A Sting in the Tale and A Buzz in the Meadow, the latter describing the neonicotinoid controversy.


Launch of the Worldwide Integrated Assessment (WIA) on the environmental impacts of systemic pesticides



On Tuesday this week I was in Brussels, for a press conference to launch a major series of scientific publications on the impacts of neonicotinoid insecticides on the environment. On the same day, press conferences were also held in Manila, Tokyo and Ottawa. The publications are the culmination of 5 years work involving more than 50 scientists from 4 continents, and together we reviewed evidence from >800 scientific papers. Our findings are being published as 7 papers in a special issue of the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research. All have been accepted for publication following full, independent, scientific peer-review. The first of the seven is online now at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11356-014-3180-5; this deals with impacts on vertebrates. The rest of the papers will appear soon as the journal finishes processing them for publication.

The conclusions of our work, in brief, are that these systemic pesticides are accumulating in soils and polluting waterways and natural vegetation across the world, leading to widespread impacts on wildlife inhabiting farmland and aquatic habitats. There is also growing evidence that much of their use is unnecessary and ineffective. But you can read all about this over the coming months as the papers come out: all of them are to be open access.

On Monday, the day before the press conference and before anyone could have seen the full set of documents, I received a rebuttal of our work from Croplife, an organisation that represents the agrochemical industry. It was quite clear that they hadn’t read any of it. Their criticisms were: that the work was selective in what it reviewed (we looked at 800 papers, everything that we could find); that we looked only at lab studies (a bizarre claim, and completely untrue); that we ignored the economic importance of neonicotinoids and didn’t consider how farmers would cope without them (there is a whole paper in the WIA just on this topic).

We have also been criticised because not all of our papers are yet available. Had this been a single report, just placed on the internet without scientific review, we could easily have made it all available. This is what industry usually does. But the scientific review and editing process is slow and not all of the papers were quite ready. On the plus side, they have the huge advantage that they have all passed independent scrutiny.  

On Wednesday, Syngenta launched a request to the UK government for an exemption to the European moratorium. They want to treat 186,000 hectares of oilseed rape woth a neonicotinoid – 30% of the UK crop – because they say that otherwise there is a “danger to production”. There appears to be no scientific evidence to back up this claim. Indeed, just a week ago on 18 June an industry spokesman appeared before the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee and was asked to provide a single scientific study showing that neonicotinoid seed dressings increased yield of any arable crop. Embarrassingly, he could not. They’ve been selling neonics for 20 years, but can provide no evidence that they work!? How do they differ from the quack doctors of days gone by, who peddled cure-alls on street corners with their slick patter?

One can read Syngenta’s request another way – they seem to be conceding that 70% of the UK’s oilseed rape doesn’t need treating with neonics. Why then was 100% treated before the moratorium?

This simply appears to be a ploy by industry to bypass the EU moratorium, which was based on sound scientific evidence, and recommended by the European Food Standards Agency. If you’d like to sign a petition against their request, go to: https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/a-ban-is-a-ban

USA finally considering action over neonicotinoids, spurred on by doubts as to whether they actually work



Two US Congressmen have launched a bill to suspend uses of neonicotinoid insecticides in the US, following the lead of the European Union. Representatives John Conyers of Michigan and Earl Bluemenauer or Oregon introduced the “Saving America’s Pollinators Act”. They were prompted by widespread honeybee colony losses and a major bumblebee kill in Oregon where 50,000 dead bumblebees were found beneath two lime trees as a result of their being sprayed with neonicotinoids for ornamental reasons (note that lime trees often have a few dead bumblebees under them for separate reasons that have never been fully explained). I was recently invited over to speak in Capitol Hill in support of this bill.   

The debate over neonicotinoids and bees rolls on and on, with new studies emerging every day. It seems to me that the evidence on bumblebees is clear and convincing - realistic doses are very likely to be doing harm to wild colonies – but the evidence for honeybees remains muddier. However, most of the studies finding no impact on honeybees have been funded by or performed by the industry that manufactures the chemicals, so murky waters are to be expected. 

My visit coincided with the launch of a fascinating review of the economic value of neonicotinoids, produced by the Centre for Food Safety, a US-based non-profit organisation. They review 19 studies that have evaluated how much neonicotinoid seed dressings (the usual way of using these chemicals) increase yield of a range of crops, including wheat, corn, soya beans, and oilseed rape. The findings are astonishing – in every case, the studies either found no benefit whatsoever, or weak and inconsistent benefits unlikely to offset the cost of the pesticide. As Dr Christian Krupke (a leading researcher on this topic at Purdue University) said to me, “There may be places in the US where the pests are so bad that farmers need neonicotinoid seed dressings, but we can’t find them”.

In short, the most widely used pesticides in the world - prophylactically applied to arable crops across the globe - appear to be ineffective, and to have been widely miss-sold. It reminds me a little of the Payment Protection Insurance scandal – farmers are advised to use seed dressings as an insurance against something which, it seems, almost never happens.

Remarkably, no similar studies seem to have ever been performed in the UK or elsewhere in Europe to evaluate how much, if at all, neonic seed dressings increase yield here. It would be easy to do – experimental plots of crops that are treated exactly the same, except for the presence or absence of the seed dressing. How did these chemicals come to be so widely used without the manufacturers demonstrating clearly that they worked? If they did perform such studies, why can nobody find them? Sceptics such as I might also point to Italy, where neonics were banned on corn some years ago and where yields have remained stable and corn farming profitable.   

For me, this turns the whole bee debate on its head. If neonic seed dressings were essential to grow crops, one might have to accept a risk of harm to bees. But it seems that they are not.

In Europe, a decision will need to be made in the next year or so as to whether the current EU moratorium is extended or allowed to lapse. This new evidence will hopefully help to prevent the latter.

Prof Dave Goulson, University of Sussex.

[An abbreviated version of this Blog is published in the newsletter of the BBKA, June 2014]