Amateur Gardening Magazine Investigates Threat To Bees From Neonicotinoid Pesticides

Was Amateur Gardening's Investigation of Neonicotinoid Garden Pesticide Threat To Bees 'Amateurish'?

I’ve seen some pretty cynical and misleading articles on the impacts of neonicotinoids on bees. 

But I’m always especially disappointed when it comes from a source that has potential to be a positive influence with the public for the sake of bees, other pollinators and wildlife – such as gardening magazines.

I’ll admit, that I see the British Amateur Gardening magazine as a fairly low quality source of information.  

But one item featured on their website, was drawn to my attention by a friend.

...."no-one doubts that ..[some]...bees and other pollinators.... are killed on car windscreens, which is regrettable.  But then car windscreens do not serve as natural habitats or potential safe havens for insects and other wildlife – gardens (potentially) do." 

The stated intention of Amateur Gardening's editor, Tim Rumball was:

“To get some perspective on the debate about the harm some neonicotinoids used by gardeners are said to do to bees and other pollinators”. 

They decided to do this by attempting to estimate the number of insects that might be killed on car windscreens each year, based on 34 million vehicles on UK roads, with an average 2 meter square windscreen space.

Based on a ‘finger in the air’ assumption, they come to the conclusion that 68 billion insects are killed on UK roads every year, which they tell us ‘feels VERY modest’.  

(However, they don’t attempt to tells us how many of these insect splats might be pollinators, despite their original stated aim).  

Since they appear not to mind using ‘finger in the air’ logic in place of scientific data, this did not surprise me.

But anyway, no-one doubts that insects and importantly, bees and other pollinators, are in decline, and that some are killed on car windscreens, which is regrettable. 

But then car windscreens do not serve as natural habitats or potential safe havens for insects and other wildlife – gardens do. 

Exploring their own assumptions, the total surface area of ‘dangerous windscreens’ converts to 6,800 hectares. 

Gardens, meanwhile, take up a UK land mass of almost 1 million hectares (actually 974,440 ha).  In other words, what we do in our gardens matters

But perhaps the editor of Amateur Gardening thinks that pesticide companies should be allowed to market their poisons to gardeners without having first been properly tested? (– which was definitely found by EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) to be the case with 3 neonicotinoids.

Does Tim Rumball think their conclusions are rubbish, I wonder, and if so, on what basis?

So what sort of ‘perspective’ did Amateur Gardening think they were really bringing to the whole debate?  It’s not looking like a useful one so far.

Which brings me to my next point.

I was given a copy of their 13 April 2013 magazine.   More disappointment. 

In his ‘editor’s letter’ Tim Rumball tells us that 

“….campaigners celebrated a ‘victory’ having bullied and browbeaten major gardening retailers into removing from sale Provado Lawn Grub Killer and one Westland Plant Rescue product”.

He then goes on to state that the EU ‘has not banned these chemicals’.  There was no mention of the fact that the EU did indeed attempt to ban the 3 chemicals from use in gardens, and if it were not for the lobbying of the agrochemical industry on individual governments, they may well have succeeded, (and may still do so in the future!).

Whilst Tim Rumball accuses ordinary people of ‘bullying’ there was no mention of industry threats to EFSA when it was clear EFSA were not singing a tune they liked! 

This included legal threats with no substance and EFSA personnel were personally targetted - might that be construed as 'bullying'?.

Despite a survey indicating  71% of Britons support a ban on neonicotinoids (according to a YouGov Poll), numerous letter writing campaigns and petitions, the UK government still did not implement their wishes by at least supporting the EU proposal for bans to gardening use of 3 neonicotinoids (and various restrictions).

Ordinary people appealed to retailers to act responsibly and at least remove those neonicotinoids already identified as risky by EFSA. 

There was a further feature in the magazine:  ‘Bees And Spray Q&A’.  Again there were a number of falsehoods and flawed arguments, quoted from what the manufacturers tell us.

And so again, perhaps I can add additional ‘perspective’.

1.       The author correctly mentions that habitat loss is contributing to bee decline.  But really, this is irrelevant to the debate about whether or not neonics should remain on the market.  No-one doubts that habitat loss is a problem for bees and other pollinators, but this does not negate the requirement for industry to have their poison properly tested prior to marketing authorisation being granted – again, this has been proven not to have been the case, and worse, independent evidence clearly shows they put bees at risk. 


2.        Another  industry argument that ‘Australia’s bees have no problem, despite using neonicotinoids – because Australia doesn't have Varroa’ was also used in the Q&A, and is FALSE.  Beekeepers in Australia are indeed expressing concern over neonicotinoids.


3.       Given that most usage is on agricultural land as the article states (actually quoting 99% usage of neonicotinoids in agriculture) anyone who cares about bees and pollinators might hope that at the very least, we could have some safe havens for pollinators and that gardens must be an important part of that picture.  Because unbroken belts of toxic land have the potential, in effect, to result in fragmented ‘safe’ habitat for wild bees. 

This in turn, can cause in-breeding, thus accelerating extinctions.  Is it too much to hope that gardeners, understanding the importance of pollinators and aware of the troubles they face, would want to do their bit? 

Does a ‘spray here and there’ in a garden make a difference?  Collectively, it must, and each individual gardener is part of the whole.  

One example is bumblebees.  Every year, the bumblebee colony dies, apart from newly emerged, impregnated queens, and these hibernate and re-emerge the following year to ensure future generations.  Bumblebee queens are foragers too, and the Whitehorn et al research tells us that exposure to neonicotinoids resulted in 85% fewer queens!  I feel sorry for any queen bumblebees that may happen to venture into Tim Rumball’s garden if he uses neonicotinoids!

And whilst the Q&A tells us the FERA study used more ‘realistic levels’ of neonicotinoids, no mention was made of the serious flaws in the FERA study on bumblebees .


4.       The feature then goes on to question “Do scientists believe that neonics can harm bees?” – and the suggestion is that, all should be well as long as you use them according to instructions.  The author does not mention and may not be aware, that scientists have found that even when applied at doses below the recommended rate, neonics are lethal to bees (e.g. Suchail et al – plus lots of data on relationship between sub-lethal doses of neonics and nosema).  They may not kill the bee immediately, but by impairing the functioning of the bee, they may threaten future colony production, or cause eventual death.  A bit like some of the effects Bayer CropScience describe in their literature for their neonicotinoid termite killer.  But granted, I can’t find a single industry-friendly scientist who will not agree with the manufacturers that neonics won’t harm bees if applied in accordance with the instructions, as the Q&A tells us.

As regards Dr Hessayon’s comment that ‘what could happen in practice is the question’ – I’d agree with that – shame the industry field studies for the 3 neonics investigated, represented totally unrealistic field conditions, as found by EFSA.   And I’d add that when industry patents make claims about killing Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths)  species, and Vespa (wasps – closely related to bees) then it would be a bit much for me to believe that these chemicals conveniently only kill the ‘nasty pests’ whilst conveniently leaving the ‘nice insects’ unharmed. 

Neonicotinoids are systemic, meaning they in essence, create a toxic plant.  Residues are present in nectar and pollen.  The time of day they are used is irrelevant.  Add that to the independent science, and the manufacturer’s own product literature, and it gets even harder for me to believe bees will be unharmed. 

Oh, and then there’s my own experience, which is this:  

I’m seeing far fewer insect splats on my car windscreen these days.  And I’m worried that neonics, used on over 1.2m ha of agricultural land alone, might play at least some part in diminishing populations.  Think I’ll continue being a responsible gardener, and ensure I don’t use them.

I just wanted to help my readers ‘get some perspective’ but hey, guess I’d better look out - maybe Tim Rumball will accuse me of ‘bullying’.

Get yet another perspective regarding the EU EFSA investigation of neonicotinoids and scientists' views of FERA's bumblebee 'study' from The Scientist.

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