My first piece for An Áit Eile last year was about bees, and I’d love my first for 2018 to be about them. There is so much to experience and know about bees… Besides their beauty and honey, there is all of their intelligence and behaviour, evolution and classification, habitats and contributions to plant life and crop pollination… And just like anything that you love, there are all of the dangers and risks too…

Pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides etc.) are linked to the global declines of bees and other insect pollinators. In April 2013, the European Commission announced restrictions on the use of three neonicotinoid pesticides linked to declining bee populations; clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam. These were banned from use for two years on certain flowering crops in the EU, which are attractive to bees; e.g. oilseed rape, maize and sunflowers, and the European Food Safety Authority review on neonicotinoids will be finalised next month.

Neonicotinoids are systemic insecticides which target nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in an insect’s brain. These are parts of the brain involved with learning and memory. They are widely used to control pests such as aphids and beetles, and may be applied for example, via seed and in-furrow treatments, and foliar applications. In Ireland, they are mainly used on seeds for oilseed rape, which accounts for approximately 4% of arable land, and is much loved by bees and other insects for its nectar and pollen.

The use of neonicotinoids can come at a price for pollinators. Some countries (e.g. France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia) already had partial restrictions on these chemicals before the EU-wide restrictions in 2013. Studies indicate that exposure can have impacts on reproduction, foraging behaviour, learning abilities and overwintering success. For survival, bees need to be able to forage for pollen and nectar, find their way home and reproduce. I hate to imagine bees getting confused and lost after foraging.

As neonicotinoids are only one class of pesticides, many would like to know if exposure to other classes via nectar, pollen, air, water, soil etc. may also pose risks to bees. What about exposure to multiple insecticides, herbicides and fungicides – bees can encounter several classes of pesticides when they are out foraging, and will travel long distances for flowers. We are also lacking data on the impacts of pesticides on our native bumblebee and solitary bee species which make up most of the world’s bee species, and can be effective pollinators – honeybees can get the most attention!

Thankfully, pesticide research is a very active field now with studies on different pollinator groups. Education and awareness-raising is also on the rise. We have a wonderful national strategy to protect pollinators and pollinator services; the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan 2015-2020, which has all kinds of pollinator-friendly actions for gardens, businesses, councils, and more, including ways to reduce the use of pesticides. You can find more information on the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan here

In February, I’ll be waiting for the European Food Safety Authority review on neonicotinoids in the EU… And just like every spring, I’ll also be waiting for the bees to wake up from their hibernation again…

I’d like to wish you all a happy new year from AÁE ecology! Please get in touch if you would like to write!

All images courtesy of Jeanne Sampier