Don’t just tell the bees, warn them!

Bee going about its pollinating business.
Pollinating bee by Kunal Kalra

From a London allotment to a back garden in Sussex, with not quite ‘nine bean rows’ but definitely a  ‘bee-loud glade’, with apologies to Yeats, our down from London (dfL) bees thought that peace would come ‘dropping slow’.  Indeed, they have embraced the rural idyll with town bees turning into country bees with no apparent trauma.  Honey yields have been good and delicious and, in the still lockdown days of 2020, it was comforting to listen to their contented buzzing as they were the only ones allowed out to work, not to mention socialising with upwards of 30,000 in a hive.

Domesticated bees were not the only ones to flourish in last summer’s peace – bumbles, solitary bees and other pollinating insects surely made the most of a ‘season like no other’ as we are wont to say.  For the dfL bees, if the forage was not quite as plentiful as London, they still had the benefit of fresh air and uninterrupted three-mile flying space in most directions, not to mention the lack of irritation from the neighbours if they swarmed. They were also delighted to be told of the government’s commitment to a green revival after the pandemic was over, so were looking forward to a golden age for pollinators. But they could not imagine the threat that lurked in those quiet country fields. 

For those who do not know bees, it is important for bee keepers to keep their hives informed of all that is going on and they had already been told that neonicotinoids had been banned in 2018. Summer lingered on into autumn and, although for bees that usually means lockdown and stay in your hive, there were still opportunities in those shorter but golden September days to fly out and about. In the meantime, the world around them was coming back to life and decisions were being made that would affect both them and their pollinating colleagues…

In the depths of winter, 13 January to be precise, when bees have their backs literally turned as they bundle together for warmth in a big buzzy ball in their hives, the government decided to allow farmers to use Thiamethoxam, a neonicotinoid, to treat sugar beet seeds as 2020 had been a bad year for the beet with yields at least 20% down for some farmers. This was blamed on the yellow virus which is spread by aphids and understandably farmers, already fearing the consequences of the hardest of Brexits, did not want a crop that does not have to be exported to be damaged. Thus, a substance that Michael Gove banned, because “the risk was greater than previously understood… and we cannot afford to put our pollinator populations at risk”, was now to be allowed for emergency use. 

A field of sugar beet.
Photo credit: BritishSugar.co.uk

The outcry was immense from environmentalists, cross-party groups of MPs, beekeepers and the general public at large via petitions. This pesticide does not stay where it is put and is dangerous because it attacks the bees’ central nervous systems and motor functions, affecting their navigation and foraging as well as their feeding and reproduction. Bees are clever and they can find their way back home from up to three miles away. As well as this, they can direct their mates to a good supply of nectar and pollen, through a complicated dance called the waggle. Sadly, like many of us, they are not so bright when it comes to eating the wrong sort of food. It appears that they prefer their pollen with a good slug of thiamethoxam. Again, like many of us, they are attracted by bright colours, poppies at the edges of a field of non-flowering beet, a field of brilliant yellow rape flowers, rather than the less showy spring blossom. But if the poppies are full of pesticide, then bees might well forget their way home.

But the moment this article was submitted, the news came through that the government had performed yet another U-turn with the Environment Minister reversing his decision. In the nick of time just before the bees start to fly on the warmer days of spring, the ban was re-imposed as the aphid population had declined during the winter and the virus threat had therefore receded. The bees needed to know nothing, apart from the fact that they must Stay Alert as this decision is not permanent. The government could clearly change its mind again, depending on what wealthy interest, lobby or donor puts them under pressure. So don’t just tell the bees, shout it from the rooftops that nature and her diversity is under threat – butterflies and other insects are affected as well as bumble bees and wild bees. On their behalf, hold this wretched government to account on its promise of a green revolution, of a better world post-pandemic, and keep on talking to the bees!


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