Since 1992 over 10 million honeybee colonies have died around the world: a million hives died in France, six million in America, hundreds of thousands more in Germany, Italy, Holland and the UK.
It is not just honeybees that are dying; bumblebees, butterflies, garden moths, grasshoppers, beetles, ladybirds – are melting away like snow off a dyke. Frogs, toads and newts are becoming rare in any area where crops are grown.
Most young people have no idea that this ecological collapse is taking place. They have never seen telephone wires crowded with hundreds of sparrows, swallows and starlings. Ordinary, common experiences of childhood are fading from sight.
We are also seeing a near-extinction of many bird species in town and countryside: millions of sparrows and starlings have simply vanished without trace; skylarks have declined by 90%, partridges by a similar amount, yellowhammers, linnets, corn buntings – the list goes on.
What is causing this ecological disaster? The European Commission, the Food Safety Agency and the current House of Commons Inquiry have combed through dozens of scientific studies and they all agree: it is the use of ‘systemic insecticides’ called neonicotinoids.
Before 1990 most pesticides were sprayed onto the leaves of a crop; they soon washed-off in the rain or were neutralised by the sun. But you cannot wash-off systemics – they are ‘inside’ the food; we are all eating them. They are applied to the seeds of: wheat, barley and oilseed rape, but also to apples, tomatoes, plums, peas, beans and potatoes; they poison the entire plant from root to flower and emerge in the pollen and nectar, killing bees and any insect which visits the flower.
Farmers have no choice in any of this; they did not create this system; it has been imposed on them. It is now almost impossible to buy ‘untreated’ seeds of oilseed rape; they arrive at the farm gate pre-coated with neonics.
The good news is that the EU intends to ban them in three weeks’ time; the recent vote in the Commission was 13 countries ‘for’ the ban – including France, Italy and Holland; 9 countries were ‘against’ the ban – and 5 ‘abstained’ – including the UK. Agriculture will not collapse.
Many farmers are very unhappy about the trap they are caught in and many of them are the best conservationists around; most beekeepers are convinced that the scientists have got it right, and want neonics banned.
•Graham White is a beekeeper for Friends of the Bees