Bee pesticide study furore is called a ‘scandal’



Do neonicotinoid pesticides kill bees? We still don’t know, but the latest research is alarming – and casts doubt on the integrity of science.

One of the UK’s top bee researchers this week claimed that a study quoted two years ago by UK ministers to justify opposing a European Union ban on neonicotinoids actually shows that the pesticides can harm the insects.

The study, by Helen Thompson of the government’s Food and Environment Research Agency, found “no clear consistent relationships” between pesticide residues and measures of the health of bee colonies, such as the number of new queens. “The absence of these effects is reassuring but not definitive,”she said.

But Dave Goulson of the University of Sussex in Brighton has reanalysed the data and says that in fact the results “strongly suggest that wild bumblebee colonies in farmland can be expected to be adversely affected by exposure to neonicotinoids”.

Bees are in sharp decline in the UK and elsewhere. The reasons are disputed, but much attention has been given to neonicotinoids, which are widely applied as insecticides to arable crops visited by bees, such as oilseed rape.

Several studies showing the damage caused by force-feeding bumblebees with pesticide-treated pollen were enough to persuade the EU to temporarily ban use of the pesticides in 2013. But the Thompson study – published online by the government, but never peer reviewed – was the first to look at bees that were foraging in the wild.

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Thompson put 40 colonies of bees near rape fields treated with the pesticides and compared their subsequent health with 20 control colonies. She also looked at the level of pesticide residues in pollen and nectar taken from hives. Although described as a pilot study, the reported absence of a strong link was enough to persuade the then UK environment minister Owen Paterson to declare days afterwards that “we did not see grounds for a ban based on our field trial data”.

But Goulson says the data “quite clearly showed a negative relationship between pesticide levels and colony success”. The study found 50 per cent fewer new queens in the hives near the pesticide-soaked fields – even though detailed analysis found that the “control” colonies were also contaminated by neonicotinoids.

“This is a scandal,” said Matt Shardlow of the charity Buglife, which has campaigned on the issue. “The scientific process appears to have been deliberately manipulated to agree with the environment secretary’s views.”

Thompson now works for agribusiness Syngenta, which manufactures some pesticides. She was not willing to speak on the record to New Scientist about Goulson’s conclusions, but is understood to have submitted a new study on the issue for publication.

There could be a simpler explanation though. James Cresswell, a bee specialist at the University of Exeter, UK, says: “These counter-interpretations sometimes happen in literature. It’s unusual, but not at all unprecedented.”

This goverment have a lot of questions to answer

Best bee-havior: Micro-trackers glued onto bees to monitor travels


bumblebee with transponder

A group of ecologists at Kew Gardens in London are testing a miniscule new tracker designed to monitor the behavior of bees.

The trackers are made from off-the-shelf technology initially designed to track pallets in a warehouse, said the tracker’s designer, Mark O’Neill.

Information from the trackers is transmitted back to computers, which log the readings.

To attach the tiny monitors to the insects, the bees must first be chilled so they are less aggressive.

They still make “a hell of a noise,” O’Neill said.

The minute pieces of technology are just 8mm high and 4.8mm wide and are stuck to the insects with a type of superglue.

O’Neill told the BBC the trackers would remain stuck to the bees for the duration of their expected lifespan – around three months.

He added that they were attached to the bees at their center of gravity so they would not affect their flight. They have only been fitted to worker bees, which do not mate.

“If an animal ate one, I guess it would have a tracker in its stomach,” O’Neill said.

“But the attrition rate for field worker bees is very low. Most die of old age – they are very competent, and good at getting out of the way.

The tracker itself is made of a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip and an aerial especially designed by O’Neill to be lighter than other insect trackers, allowing the bees to fly further afield.

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“The first stage was to make very raw pre-production tags using components I could easily buy,” he said.

“I want to make optimized aerial components which would be a lot smaller. I’ve made about 50 so far. I’ve soldered them all on my desk – it feels like surgery,” he added.

He said the average flight time of a worker bee is roughly 20 minutes, meaning they have a potential “foraging” range of 1 kilometer. His plan is to have readers planted around the hive and flower beds to track the bees’ signals.

Sarah Barlow, a restoration ecologist from Kew Gardens, called the trackers a “big step.”

“These tags are a big step forward in radio technology and no one has a decent medium to long range tag yet that is suitable for flying on small insects,” she said.

“This new technology will open up possibilities for scientists to track bees in the landscape.

“This piece of the puzzle, of bee behavior, is absolutely vital if we are to understand better why our bees are struggling and how we can reverse their decline,” she said.


adams bees
Upon a summer early morn,
The sun dazzling like
gemstones through the trees,
It's warming glow follows the chill of dawn,
I hear the forest whisper in the gentle breeze.
When from the corner of my
Upon a thicket I did see,
A spiders web outlined with dew,
Thereupon a
struggling honey bee!
Excuse me sir! To my surprise,
The little worker bee did
Might you assist with my predicament,
Before I become the spiders
Why certainly Mam! I'd be happy to,
As I gently set her free,
And sat
upon the dampened ground,
To rest her perched upon my knee.
She fanned her
wings, Why thank you sir,
Your reward it shall be great,
I bestow on you my
treasure trove of gold
But a short while you must wait!
While her words still
echoed she was gone,
Busily buzzing about her way,
I pondered though what she
had said,
In anticipation of that day.
Upon the summer seasons end,
I duly
raised my roof and board,
To frame upon frame of golden comb,
True to her
word,The little bees reward!

Paul Vagg 22/3/2015

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Viruses threaten wild bumblebees



Several viruses associated with managed honeybees may pose a widespread risk to bumblebees in the wild, according to latest research.

It identified five viruses from both wild bumblebees and managed honeybees at 26 sites across Great Britain. Previously research had only identified one pathogen, deformed wing virus, as having passed from honeybees to bumblebees, said Professor Robert Paxton of Queen’s University Belfast.

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“We now find that other viruses may be doing the same. Yet our new findings also highlight just how little we know of bee parasites and the role they play in the decline of pollinators.”

Professor Mark Brown of Royal Holloway, University of London, added: “It is imperative that we take the next step and identify how these viruses are transmitted among honeybees and wild bees so that we can manage both to reduce disease risk.”