The Silent Beehive

Yet another day when bees are mentioned in the press. It is a problem that requires an answer and soon. If we do nothing about the vanishing numbers of bees then there is every danger that we will have nothing to eat in the not too distant future. The link is to an announcement about a film concerning the reducing numbers of bees.

I wrote about this in February of this year in advance of the legislative changes proposed by the EU. But go and see the film mentioned above if you can. It has a limited release in the UK from next week. This is the article I wrote earlier in the year.

The busy bee
The busy bee

In March 2009 the EU will pass legislation which will outlaw at least 22 pesticides from our farms over the next 10 years. EU agriculture ministers will rubber stamp the new law when they meet next month. This, despite the fact that there has been no support from the UK.

The EU will pass the legislation on the basis that the use of the chemicals is considered to be a hazard to farmers’ health. The decision to take them off the market is not based on any risk to the consumer.

Pesticides are used by farmers during the growing process of most crops to prevent disease. The EU has now passed a directive forcing arable farmers to use a restricted list of pesticides on their fields. The products to be banned include those with carcinogenic or “endocrine disrupting” properties.

John Picken, chair of the NFU Scotland Cereals Committee said that “the notion of restricting pesticides sounds good but it is too simplistic and takes no account of the fact that they are already rigorously controlled.”

The UK’s Pesticides Safety Directive has said that the banning of some pesticides will hit UK crops for no appreciable benefit to human health.

So are farmers livelihoods now under threat?

Various crops could be affected. Ordinary carrots and potatoes may become a scarce commodity. The British Carrot Growers Association explained to me that they will suffer increased costs and lower yields and that farmers might only be able to grow about two-thirds of what they could previously. Even if the carrot does not disappear completely from our dinner tables it means that more land will be required. In 21st century speak farmers would increase their carbon footprint!

Robert Dale, immediate past president of the East Lothian branch of NFU Scotland, told me that on his potato farm near Whitekirk he will be rethinking which varieties of potato to grow this year. He intends growing more potatoes for crisps in the coming months rather than the varieties destined for the dinner table as these are more resilient to certain disease. He emphasised that “Quality is absolutely critical these days.” Dale also told me that one of the benefits of GM crops is that they require far less in the way of pest control.

There have been reports carried out examining the impact of the proposed ruling on food prices and it has been suggested that potato prices could double. The Potato Council told me that at the moment “Potatoes offer consumers exceptional value for money.  With an average retail price of 63p per kilo, this equates to 5 average servings of potatoes i.e. 5 meals and not only are potatoes good value, but they taste, a very versatile and highly nutritious.” 

On the other hand, it could be good news for bees if fewer pesticides are used in future. The world’s bumble bee population is apparently in decline, although it should be pointed out that part of that decline is due to other factors than simply the use of pesticides. Bees play an important role in pollinating crops worldwide. In the US beehives are loaded onto trucks and transported to areas where pollination is required and then reloaded into the hives and moved on to another location. This is how important they are to the US agricultural industry.

Stuart Bailey, Chairman, Rowse Honey Ltd, during an interview with me said that “The possible effects of pesticides on honeybees is a concern to beekeepers. In 1999, France banned the use of Imidacloprid on sunflowers after large numbers of honeybees died after its use. In May last year Germany suspended the registration of eight neonicotinoid pesticide seed treatments following honeybee losses of 50%……the Co-op has banned the use of eight pesticides on its own-brand fresh produce in order to safeguard the honeybee population.”

Even the Queen has taken steps to ensure that beehives have been installed on the roof of her properties in Regent Street London. The London Evening Standard reported this in August 2009.


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