Honey Bee Pesticide Poisoning Incidents

Are honey bee pesticide poisoning incidents being properly identified and measured - or even adequately reported?

This is of interest, because in the UK, for example, during the debate about whether neonicotinoid pesticides kill bees, it has been claimed that there is no evidence that they are linked to bee losses. It is stated that honey bee poisoning incidents are monitored, and there is no evidence to suggest concern.

The UK Invertbrates charity, Buglife, investigated this claim. Here is what they say - from 6th April 2011:

"Neonicotinoid pesticides increasingly implicated in Honeybee mass poisoning incidents

An investigation by Buglife has revealed that contrary to statements made by Government scientists from the National Bee Unit on yesterday’s Channel 4 News item there is evidence of an increasing link between Neonicotinoid pesticides and bee deaths in Britain....

On the news item Dr Helen Thompson, from Fera, the Government’s agricultural research organisation, stated that “there is no strong evidence that they [Neonicotinoids] are actually linked to bee losses - at all....

However, Buglife reviewed Fera’s data and found that there have been several cases in the last two years when the Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme has implicated Neonicotinoid pesticides in mass bee deaths. Not only that, but the number of reported incidents have been rising in recent years and, importantly, an increasing proportion of the incidents are associated with Neonicotinoid pesticides."

The report then goes on to outline how the proportion of honey bee pesticide poisoning incidents due to neonicotinoids has increased from 0% in 2008 to 27% in 2010.

However, one could argue that the overall number of incidents is rather small anyway. Certainly, the low figures surprised me - but then, I have heard about incidents going unreported. This begs the question

"are honey bee poisoning incidents really
adequately reported - or not, and whose job is it to ensure they are?"

We need to know, because when claims such as those by Fera's Helen Thompson are made, we need to be sure we can have confidence in their validity, especially given the amount of independent evidence implicating neonicotinoids in bee deaths.

WIIS - Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme

A report by a Spray Liaison Officer and beekeeper, Dr Bernie Doeser, is interesting reading. You can download it here (opens new window).

Within the report, Dr Doeser outlines the inadequacies of the Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme mentioned above by Buglife, with regard to honey bees and beekeepers and the reporting of honey bee pesticide poisoning incidents.

These inadequacies include (and do take into account the large increase in numbers of new beekeepers):

    - lack of awareness about the reporting scheme
    - lack of knowledge about how to identify poisoning incidents
    (and if beekeepers don't know it's a poisoning, they won't report it will they!)
    - dysfunctional (chemical) Spray Liaison network
    - "Reporting an incident takes time, effort and a little money. The benefits to the beekeeper of reporting an incident are zero."

Dr Doeser concludes:
"Certainly anyone basing their argument that bees are safe from pesticides on the low level of incidents reported to the WIIS does not understand how the scheme works, or perhaps more accurately, how it doesn’t work."

Note that the Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme is led by the Chemical Regulations Directorate, who are responsible for the approval of pesticides, and who also work closely with DEFRA and FERA. Presumably, it's their job to rectify this situation - although I won't hold my breath.

Afterall, independent scientists have also drawn attention to concerns about the effects of sub-lethal doses of neonicotinoid pesticides on bees and non-target insects, but our regulatory system ignores them.

Yet it is low doses which are, according to Bayer's own product literature, effective at eradicating termites, by interfering with the insect's ability to groom itself, thus meaning that the insect then succumbs to diseases and pathogens. The leaflet states:

    "What is Premise 200SC plus Nature?

    Low doses of imidacloprid such as the edge of the Treated Zone, disoriented the termites and caused them to cease their natural grooming behaviour. Grooming is important for termites to protect them against pathogenic soil fungi. When termites stop grooming, the naturally occurring fungi in the soil attack and kill the termites. Imidacloprid makes fungi 10,000 times more dangerous to termites. Nature assists imidacloprid in giving unsurpassed control. This control is called Premise 200SC plus Nature."

Read more on my page about Varroa mite and neonicotinoids (opens new window).

So, Bayer Cropscience seem to think the feature of killing by sub-lethal dose is sufficiently significant for them to highlight it in their product literature.

But when Helen Thompson worked with Bayer Cropscience researcher, Christian Maus to see whether or not we need to consider sub-lethal effects, in their study: "The relevance of sublethal effects in honey bee testing for pesticide risk assessment," (See this link for more (opens new window), the conclusion was:

"The authors conclude that sublethal studies may be helpful as an optional test to address particular, compound-specific concerns, as a lower-tier alternative to semi-field or field testing, if the effects are shown to be ecologically relevant. However, available higher-tier data (semi-field, field tests) should make any additional sublethal testing unnecessary, and higher-tier data should always override data of lower-tier trials on sublethal effects."

Note the words "optional test". And given Bayer's marketing of the efficacy of low dose Imidacloprid for killing termites (social insects, like bees), it's remarkable how "available higher-tier data (semi-field, field tests) should make any additional sublethal testing unnecessary, and higher-tier data should always override data of lower-tier trials on sublethal effects".
And I wonder, would these field tests be of a similar standard to those labelled 'supplemental' by the EPA? Read more (opens new window).

So when the likes of Helen Thompson seem to be capable of ignoring what is in front of her very nose, I really wonder whether the inadequate recording of honey bee pesticide poisoning incidents might just be ignored too.

No-one doubts that habitat is absolutely a crucial issue for bees and other pollinators, and certainly, if we ban all pesticides tomorrow, we must still address the issue of habitat loss. A lack of appropriate foraging opportunities, such as those provided by our vital dwindling wildflower habitats, has no doubt been a major factor in biodiversity loss.

Regardless of this, don't we, the people, need to be reassured that our tax-payer funded organisations are correctly and adequately monitoring the effects of pesticides?

It's not even clear that we adequately report and monitor honey bee poisoning incidents, let alone adequately test and regulate pesticides prior to marketing authorisations being granted.

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