Fordyce Maxwell: Neonics and honey bees

The number of managed honeybee hives in Britain has halved in 20 years.And so it goes on – endless wind, endless cold, flurries of snow, grey skies and hope fading.

That could be either an extract from Captain Scott’s last diary page in the Antarctic a century ago or a shepherd nearing the end of his tether in a March 2013 lambing shed.

Of course it’s not as bad as that. It just seems like it as this month is expected to be the coldest March since 1962. As recently as that? Chat about the weather has reached a new level of predictability because, as purple becomes the new face colour, all we want to know is when temperatures will rise.

And that’s while remembering it could be worse because most of our area has missed the snow and power cuts of the past week in other parts of the country.

But, dear me – that’s known as understatement – it is depressing when a year ago just now temperatures were in the 70s. We can only hope for a glorious summer and that the fine old saying “Change the time, change the weather” will bring some improvement after this weekend.

The latest argument between science and sentiment, and there are many in farming, centres on honeybees and the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, Usually referred to in crop adviser shorthand as neonics, these are used as a seed dressing to protect some crops, such as oilseed rape, against aphid attack.

But it is claimed that bees can be affected by the pesticide in pollen and nectar when oilseed is flowering. It acts as a neurotoxin, killing them or disabling their homing mechanism. That is seen by some as the latest disaster in a steady decline for all bee species that has seen the number of managed honeybee hives in Britain halved in 20 years because of disease, invasive species and pesticide use.

Demands for a ban on neonicotinoids – there are three main types – will be discussed again by European Union agriculture ministers in the next few weeks and a ban could be introduced this summeer. But agro-chemical companies and farmers continue to protest that the alleged effect of neonics on bees is based on distorted results and trials that used much higher application rates than commercial farming.

At the same time a separate argument has developed about the vital place of honeybees in crop production on farms and gardens. Large claims have been made for that, including the belief that if honeybees disappeared “man would only have four years of life left” because crop pollination would end.

As with most such all-embracing claims, that one is exaggerated although it is estimated that about 70 crops in Britain benefit from honeybee activity and that is worth £200million or more a year. However, muddying the waters further, recent research suggests that the contribution of honeybees to pollination is only half that of wild insects.

Professor Simon Potts of Reading University said the central influence of the honeybee in crop pollination was a myth: “They’ll have a go at pollinating anything. But they aren’t always efficient and there are some crops they’re totally useless on.”

If that isn’t grounds for furious argument I don’t know what is but it does give us something to think about apart from the weather.