Bee death is the new global warming.
That’s how it seemed this week when the European Union said it would suspend use of certain insecticides that may harm the black-and-yellow striped creatures that pollinate the plants that provide our food.
As with climate change, the EU was responding to divided scientific evidence on the cause of a possibly existential threat that has captured the public imagination. And similarly, it had to pick sides between industry and environmentalists in a fierce debate over how to respond.
It was a close call. Fifteen of the EU’s 27 countries voted for a two-year moratorium on using the suspect pesticides, known as neonicotinoids, which were introduced to replace DDT in the early 1990s. That was a majority, but not enough to impose the ban. The deciding vote went to the European Commission in Brussels.
Environmentalists across Europe are celebrating. Producers, farm lobbies and some scientists are warning of dire consequences if the agriculture industry has to return to old-fashioned crop spraying, lower yields and higher costs.
As a layman, it is close to impossible to figure out who is right. The European Commission acted on a report by the European Food Safety Authority, which in January said its scientists had identified “a number of risks posed to bees,” by three neonicotinoids.
The U.K. was among the eight countries to oppose the ban (four others abstained). In March, Britain’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Department issued a report concluding that “the risk to bee populations from neonicotinoids, as they are currently used, is low.” All very confusing.
Two things, however, are clear: that something is killing bees on a vast scale, and that these have become very fashionable insects, perhaps as a result.
On April 26, hives in red, white and blue, and home to 60,000 bees, were installed on the roof of the Assemblee Nationale, the lower house of France’s parliament. A Paris advertising agency beat them to it. They already had bees on their rooftop last year, making honey that they handed out to clients as chic Christmas presents.
In London, Fortnum & Mason’s luxury-food store has had four designer hives on the roof, housing as many as 200,000 bees, since 2008. You can book to visit them, but all tickets for 2013 are sold out.
When I dropped by to see the bees this week, they seemed to be lining up to get back into their hives, after a morning spent browsing the spring blossoms in Buckingham Palace gardens and central London’s parks. «Near paradise» for bees, commented Jonathan Miller, who heads the store’s bee project. Even so, he said he lost half of his bees this year, killed off by an unusually tough winter.
Yet there is a wider problem that can’t be explained by weather alone. Humans now need to pollinate fruit trees by hand in China’s Sichuan province, after pollution wiped out the bee population there. In Europe, beekeepers have been reporting unusually high mortality rates among bees for 10 to 15 years, according to the European Food Safety Agency.
The collapse of bee populations in the U.S. has been as dramatic as in Europe, especially since «colony-collapse disorder» first struck in 2005. The U.S. Agriculture Department has forecast that 2013 will be the worst year to date — the beekeeping industry predicts a 40 percent loss among colonies.
On March 21, a coalition of beekeepers, environmentalists and consumer groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency for approving two neonicotinoids for use.
The Agriculture Department says such collapses have occurred before — U.S. honey-producing colonies more than halved since 1950, from 5.5 million to less than 2.5 million in 2007. The Agriculture Department also explains that scientists are looking at four main causes of the problem, which is the evidentiary equivalent of forming a committee. The suspects listed are: pathogens; parasites (including something known as the Varroa mite); «management» stress (such as apiary overcrowding); and «environmental» stress (such as pesticides).
Looking at other parts of the world doesn’t appear to help. Elizabeth Gowing, a British writer on bees, says few neonicotinoid pesticides are used where she lives — in Kosovo — yet anecdotal evidence suggests Kosovo’s bees have been afflicted just as elsewhere in Europe. A significant part of the destruction was being caused by Varroa mites, which she described as “the equivalent of a human having a monkey on their back.”
The EU says bees contribute 22 billion euros ($29 billion) a year to Europe’s economy and that it decided to ban neonicotinoids temporarily under the so-called precautionary principle, which tilts toward taking protective action even when there is no certainty that this will solve the problem. As with global warming, there’s plenty of dissent about how far to go in applying this idea.
“The precautionary principle is entirely sensible when applied wisely,” wrote Mark Walport, the U.K. government’s chief scientific adviser. “But all too often it simply covers a panic reaction.” That is what he thinks happened in Europe’s bee ruling.
Environmentalists disagree. The decision in Brussels was “a significant victory for common sense,” said Andrew Pendleton, the head of campaigns for Friends of the Earth. Gowing says the EU’s two-year ban was right, too: «Mainly because I think it is a wake-up call for ordinary people about how important bees are to our economy and to the well-being of the food chain.»
So the EU appears to have offered itself up as an experiment to save the bees. If Europe’s bee populations recover during the two-year moratorium, that will suggest that neonicotinoid pesticides were a big part of colony-collapse disorder. If not, some researchers at Harvard University are going to be in high demand. They are designing bee drones — bee-like robots that could be programmed to pollinate plants — so we can go on eating when the bees die.
Tim Judah, the Europe correspondent for the World View blog, is a correspondent for the Economist and author of several books on the Balkans.