FERA Betray Bees Again

  • FERA are a UK public service organisation.  They are the agency that advises DEFRA and the government on key matters affecting the environment, farming and food. 
  • 'FERA' officially stands for Food and Environment Research Agency. ...........
    But I'm beginning to think it stands for 'Friends of Environmental Ruination by Agchem'. 


Where bees are concerned, members of FERA were part of the team that helped devise the flawed EPPO regulatory standards for assessing the risks of pesticides to bees, and appear to be rather close to industry.

They have frequently defended the line that there is no evidence that neonicotinoids pose unacceptable risk to bees.  See this link as an example. 

I have been appalled at the standard of work they have produced in co-operation with industry - such as this paper by Helen Thompson and Christian Maus of Bayer.

They, along with their colleagues in the Chemical Regulations Directorate, have repeatedly bleated that there is no 'unequivocal evidence' neonicotinoids present unacceptable risk to bees, and have repeatedly criticised independent studies, hinting they do not replicate 'realistic' field conditions.

Meanwhile, I am not aware of them ever confirming:

  • Why field tests should be better than laboratory studies, especially given all the potentially uncontrollable variables in field tests.
  • How field tests for pesticides could, in a scientifically ROBUST manner, measure many of the potential effects being investigated by the laboratory studies, such as behavioural effects on bees.
  • What it is that makes the regulatory field tests for pesticides so reliable and robust, such that we can trust them above the independent data implicating that pesticides are harmful to bees.

So what happens when FERA attempt to produce a robust field test examining effects of neonicotinoids on bumblebees?  Can we, following all their criticism of independent field and lab studies, now expect to see THE GOLD STANDARD from our publicly funded government body?

Apparently not.   They couldn't even ensure the control sample was not contaminated with neonicotinoids.

For a start, do listen to this great BBC interview with Prof Dave Goulson
(Press play, then scroll forward to 8.40)

who describes how the FERA study is flawed, and how data has been 'hidden' in order to conceal data that showed neonicotinoid exposure resulted in fewer bumblebee queens, as confirmed in the Whitehorn study.

FERA, however, claim that the study shows there was no significant impact on queen numbers!

Prof Goulson gave permission to publish further comment:

"Aside from the glaring lack of controls and the hopeless experimental design, I’m pretty sure the statistical methods are fundamentally flawed. But I think the biggest issue is that this work has not been peer reviewed in any way – I am sure that, if it had, it would have been torn to shreds. It certainly would if I were reviewing it, which would be quite likely if it were actually submitted to a reputable journal. It is not publishable in anything like its current form.

This is facebook science – doing a rushed, poorly designed piece of work, writing it up badly, and whacking it on the internet. That is not how science is done."  

It may seem like strong language to state that FERA are 'betraying bees'.  Perhaps it is - although, they are the public body (with the Bee Unit)  responsible for bees, risk assessment on bees, and bee health. 

Yes, I'm sure I can be accused of using sensationalist and overly emotive language.

But given the vast areas of landscape where these poisons are used, their persistence, mobility and high toxicity, I'm concerned about these chemicals, and their impacts on wildlife.

And I find it worrying when a government body repeatedly works closely with industry, and dismisses independent science and the need for applying the Precautionary Principle - continuing to take this line, even after an extensive scientific review by EFSA has examined the regulatory data and test standards, and has found both to be lacking.

And it appears to me that they are not above misleading the public and government either.

In one report, they examined the issue of 'guttation' following the release of an independent paper by Girolami et al.  There was also an experiment conducted by a group of German Beekeepers.

In it their analysis in relation to guttation, FERA state:

“Only one study (Girolami et al 2009) has shown a significant effect in honeybees but this should be treated with caution as the data were generated by feeding collected droplets directly to bees and in many cases sucrose was added to ensure the honeybees consumed the dose.”

This is misleading, because:

  • It is made to sound that the addition of sucrose to all of the guttation fluid combined with the direct feeding to bees, is reason to be suspicious of Girolami’s study – almost giving the impression the bees are deliberately tricked into consuming pesticide. Firstly, this is untrue. In actual fact, Girolami added 15% honey only to some of the samples, and other bees were fed plain guttation drops. The addition of honey or not made no difference to the toxic effects - this significant point is not mentioned.
  • In addition to which, in regulatory tests for oral toxicity, the test pesticides are mixed with a sucrose solution. FERA know this, and they know all about regulatory test methodologies and indeed, Helen Thompson of FERA certainly knows this – she conducted the oral toxicity tests on behalf of Bayer CropScience to support the DAR for imidacloprid. In these test, she fed bees test solution mixed with sucrose, as described, via feeders. 
  • Girolami, was, I believe, more scientific than the regulatory EPPO guidelines demand. He disgarded bees that did not drink the substance – thus 100% of the test groups had definitely consumed the neonicotinoid being tested (he was essentially conducting oral toxicity tests using the guttation samples he gathered).  With regulatory tests, the bees get to ‘share among themselves’ the test substance.
    In other words, for all we know, in any one group, some bees may have taken the substance, some may not (take into account there may be any number of reasons for this, for example, they are anaesthetised first). 
    Here is an analogy:
    Imagine a pharmaceutical drug being tested on humans, who were in a ward and having gained consciousness again following anaesthetic, they can then (voluntarily) help themselves to a drink (or not) from a dispenser (which happens to contain the medicine).  If just one person died, would this give the pharmaceutical company the right to claim that in 9 cases out of 10, no-one would die from taking the medicine? 
    Well it really depends on how many of the 10 people actually drank the medicine, doesn't it?  The point being, that unless we know for sure all 10 of the patients definitely took the medicine, it would not be correct for a pharmaceutical company to state 'no negative effects in 90% of cases'.

Anyway, that's not all.  FERA then went on in their report to use a flawed Swiss study to cast doubt on Girolami's paper, along with a study by Shawkti, that didn’t even use systemic pesticides.  You can read more about it here.

So yes, in my mind FERA are betraying bees - and in turn, the environment and public, and I'm very unhappy about it!

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