Bees in Decline

A review of factors that put pollinators and agriculture in Europe at risk
Greenpeace Research Laboratories Technical Report

Executive Summary

The next time you see a bee buzzing around, remember that much of the food we eat depends significantly on natural insectmediated pollination – the key ecosystem service that bees and other pollinators provide.

Without insect pollination, about one third of the crops we eat would have to be pollinated by other means, or they would produce significantly less food. Up to 75% of our crops would suffer some decrease in productivity. Undoubtedly, the most nutritious and interesting crops in our diet – including many key fruits and vegetables, together with some crops used as fodder in meat and dairy production – would be badly affected by a decline in insect pollinators; in particular, the production of apples, strawberries, tomatoes, and almonds would suffer. The most recent estimate of the global economic benefit of pollination amounts to some €265bn, assessed as the value of crops dependent on natural pollination. This is not a “real” value, of course, as it hides the fact that, should natural pollination be severely compromised or end, it might prove impossible to replace – effectively making its true value infinitely high. And how much value can we place on the abundance of colour that greets us on a bright spring day, for example? Beside crop plants, most wild plants (around 90% of them) need animal-mediated pollination to reproduce, and thus other ecosystem services and the wild habitats providing them also depend – directly or indirectly – on insect pollinators. Bees – including the managed honeybees, together with many wild species – are the predominant and most economically important group of pollinators in most geographical regions.

Managed honeybees, however, have been suffering increasingly in recent years, even as the world moves progressively towards growing more crops that are dependent on bee pollination. Similarly, the role of wild pollinators – bee species, as well as other insects – is gaining relevance worldwide, and attracting increased research attention. Moreover, wild bees are also threatened by many environmental factors, including lack of natural and semi-natural habitats, and increased exposure to man-made chemicals. Put in simple terms, bees and other pollinators – both natural and managed – seem to be declining globally, but particularly in North America and Europe. Lack of robust regional or international programmes designed to monitor the current status and trends of pollinators means there is considerable uncertainty in the scale and extent of this decline. Nonetheless, the known losses alone are striking. In recent winters, honeybee colony mortality in Europe has averaged around 20% (with a wide range of 1.8% to 53% between countries).

Press releases

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  • 16.12.2013

    Dripping Poison

    An analysis of neonicotinoid insecticides in the guttation fluid of growing maize plants

    The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has carried out reviews of the neonicotinoid pesticides thiamethoxam, imidacloprid and clothianidin in order to assess the possible risks posed by these systemic insecticides to bees.

    These reviews helped underpin the decision by the European Commission to ban the three active ingredients from certain applications for a period of two years. In particular, the reviews identified shortcomings and gaps in the available data which prevented an holistic and exhaustive risk assessment from being carried out. One key uncertainty identified by EFSA in each case related to the role of guttation fluid exuded by commercial crop plants as a potential source of the chemicals to bees when they used it as a water source for themselves or for the colony as a whole.

    The use of neonicotinoid insecticides as seed treatments and granules applied to soil is known to lead to these chemicals being present in the guttation fluid of various crop plants. Although the literature on this subject is sparse, the research carried out to date indicates that the neonicotinoids may be present at high concentrations. In order to investigate this phenomenon further, Greenpeace undertook a study of guttation fluid produced by maize plants grown in field conditions in Hungary, which according to the farmer had been treated with two different commercial seed treatment products. One field had been planted with seeds treated with Poncho®, with clothianidin as the active ingredient, while the other had been planted with seeds treated with Cruiser®, with thiamethoxam as the active ingredient. Samples of guttation fluid were sampled from each field over a number of days and analysed using UPLC-MS/MS techniques.

    These findings, and their potential toxicological significance to bees both on an individual and whole colony level, suggests that, not only is the current restriction on the three neonicotinoid insecticides wholly justified, but that it should be maintained at least until the potential significance of guttation fluid as a water resource for bees is fully characterised, and until the other identified areas of uncertainty and missing information identified by EFSA are resolved. The scale and scope of the necessarily small-scale study conducted here needs to be expanded to include the full spectrum of crops grown using neonicotinoid seed dressings. In addition, the significance of guttation as a toxicological exposure route for bees needs to be investigated not only for a variety of crops but also under the full variety of growing conditions encountered for these crops across the European Community, in order to extend the currently highly limited information base available.

    Dripping Poison - An analysis of neonicotinoid insecticides in the guttation fluid of growing maize plants [PDF]

Save the Bees – problems, solutions, demands

The next time you see a bee buzzing around, remember…
…that a third of our food crops are pollinated by bees and other insects. Up to 90% of all wild plants exist thanks to bees and other pollinating insects. The economic value of pollination services globally provided by bees amount to some €265bn.
Bee-decline is a global problem.
In recent winters, in Europe alone, bee losses up to 53% became a reality. This dramatic decline in bee populations is the result of multiple factors such as diseases and parasites, climate change and wider industrial agricultural practices. Monocultures and the extensive use of deadly pesticides are of special concern. Some pesticides are real bee-killers.
We need the bees. Save them. Save the agriculture. Now.
Greenpeace urges decision makers across Europe to:
·Ban the use of bee-harming pesticides.
·Start with the seven deadliest bee-killers: Bayer’s imidacloprid and clothianidin, Syngenta’s thiamethoxam, BASF’s fipronil, as well as clorpyriphos, cypermethrin and deltamethrin.
·Promote ecological farming.