6 July 2011

In Parliament, money talks more loudly than caution about bees

Giving evidence recently at the House of Commons to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology (APPGST), the spokesperson of the British Beekeeping Association (BBKA) said that “the BBKA did not support the precautionary principle”. I hope the MPs sat up and questioned that, but I rather doubt that many did.

Anything about bees is significant, as they are important pollinators of plants, and a new report out from the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) entitled “Global Honey Bee Disorders and Other Threats to Insect Pollinators” makes clear how serious are the problems for all life if plant pollinators go on suffering as they are at present.

At the same time, the precautionary principle is significant too. One of the primary foundations of the principle developed from the work of the Rio Conference on the Environment and Development, whose 20th anniversary will be celebrated, and its findings revisited, next year. So why did the BBKA stick its neck out at the House of Commons in disowning the precautionary principle? In the One World Column in January this year, Charlotte Du Cann suggested not everyone was happy with the BBKA throwing its weight about. What was it up to now?

The APPGST was hearing from the BBKA about the possible threat to bees, as well as to other pollinators, from a class of systemic insecticides called neonicotinoids, used as seed coatings in agriculture to protect developing crop plants from insect damage. The worry is that these insecticides may reach parts of the plant visited by pollinators, causing sub-lethal damage to the latter - difficult to identify, but maybe with serious effects in the long run. The UNEP report puts it like this: “Laboratory studies have shown that such chemicals can cause losses of sense of direction, impair memory and brain metabolism, and cause mortality. Others have found that some neonicotinoids, combined with certain fungicides, synergised to increase toxicity of the systemic insecticide over 1,000 times. However, results obtained in laboratory conditions are hard to compare to field conditions”.

It was this difficulty in applying lab. work to field practise that was exercising the APPGST. Ought the precautionary principle be applied in the UK, as some European countries have done, to prevent the use of these pesticides until the position is clearer? One can understand the anxiety of the big agribusiness companies to be able to use the chemicals freely in this country without delay; but how strange that the BBKA, supposedly the guardians of honeybees so reluctant to see them run any risks, should itself come out so strongly on the side of agribusiness as to reject the precautionary principle.

Not so strange to some British beekeepers who for years have disapproved of their parent organisation’s closeness to agribusiness. For some time now the BBKA has benefited financially from an arrangement with agricultural conglomerates in which it gives its name to promote products as “bee-friendly” in advertisements and in educational materials widely put into schools. The administration of the BBKA would not want to see this milch cow dry up. So the BBKA was telling the APPGST it wanted the chemicals assessed on the existing facts, inconclusive though they were, and to hell with the precautionary principle. In other words it was arguing that “absence of evidence” of harm to bees in the field was “evidence of absence” of any harm. That’s a facile mistake that may be forgiven in the first year of a degree course, but not from the BBKA’s Director of Public Affairs to a Commons Committee.

A formal complaint to the BBKA’s Chairman from a member has so far produced the excuse that in the House of Commons the words “did not support the precautionary principle” were followed by “in this case”, and that the BBKA supported the principle in other cases. Weasel words indeed, especially since the bad science apparently still stands. If you object to this ignorant and mercenary arrogance on the part of the BBKA, you may tell them so on http://www.bbka.org.uk/contact/ or tell your MP what rubbish the BBKA has been serving out to the APPGST.

One sultry gloaming recently, my partner and I hived a swarm of bees we had collected from a garden in Salhouse, a rural village near the Broads. Carrying out that timeless and holy ritual, we prayed that the new inhabitants would enjoy their home and not decamp, for we left the doorway open to ventilate them as much as we could. If some of them have impaired brain memory and brain metabolism from agricultural spraying, neither prayers nor ventilation are going to help much

Our local farmers are friendly and cooperative, ringing us in advance when they must spray so we may shut up the bees the night before and let them out only when the spraying is over. Yet in France the effects of neonicotinoids have been found to last in soil and plants for years, and farmers, like beekeepers, can only be as good as the evidence allows them to be, using common sense when hard science is lacking.

Perhaps I ought to have known! A while ago I heard Professor Robert Pickard, the Chairman of the new Committee on Radioactive Waste Management – appointed by government because the old Committee hadn’t provided the desired answers –, conclude a seminar on deep disposal of nuclear waste with a surprising statement. He said something to the effect that a wind of change was blowing through science and technology; that it was no longer the best possible environmental option that would count; it was the “good enough” option. Not only is the professor an eminent neurobiologist, he is also an international authority on honeybees.

He’s old and retired now, like me. Maybe it’s all good enough for him, but will it be good enough for our grandchildren – the loss of pollinators (and the buried nuclear waste)? The BBKA will say they use the money they get from agribusiness to educate beekeepers to help the honeybee, but I doubt whether such unprincipled argument can really benefit anyone. It looks likely to me that humans have been bad news for honeybees since we first began to commodify wax and honey, so we ought to struggle even harder to cherish principles to guide our behaviour, now bees are in such dire trouble. Peter Lanyon

This week's Wednesday columnist, Peter Lanyon, taught biology in the UK and in Central and East Africa. He has "kept" bees for forty years.

Photo of new Queen and workers by Mike Southern from Bungay Community Bees top bar hive.

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