Insecticides playing Russian roulette with our economy

The world’s bee populations are under an increasing – and perhaps under-estimated range of threats. These threats comprise a suite of problems including new exotic pathogens, loss of diverse forage, a new generation of insecticides, the stresses we place on our hives through moving them, and introducing chemical controls for existing pathogens like the Varroa bee mite. We cannot eliminate pathogens like Varroa once they are here, but we can do something about another major challenge facing honeybees - the new generation of insecticides called neonicotinoids.

Neonicotinoids are often used to coat seeds before planting and they can accumulate in soil if used continuously. They are commonly used to control pests such as aphids and thrips, on arable and horticulture crops throughout New Zealand.
They are absorbed through a plant’s root system and spread throughout treated plants – including its pollen and nectar sources. Although the bee is not a direct target of the insecticide, it absorbs the neonicotinoids after visiting the plant. Unfortunately, neonicotinoids are neurotoxins – they attack a bee’s central nervous system.

Studies by the US Department of Agriculture's Bee Research Laboratory, and also their French counterparts, have shown that neonicotinoids, even in minute quantities, induce chronic mortality in bees from loss of immunity to pathogens. These insecticides also cause sub-lethal effects that prevent bees from doing what they do best – ensuring our crops set fruit. Neonicotinoids have been identified as a potential cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, which can decimate a country’s bee population.
It is ironic that the use of neonicotinoids, when combined with other threats to bees, could have not only a significant impact on our ability to grow many essential food supplies, but could also have a major impact on New Zealand’s economy and exports.

The value of bees to New Zealand’s economy is conservatively estimated at approximately $4 billion annually. This is due to the country’s reliance on fruit, vegetable, dairy and meat, and fibre exports, all of which rely to some extent on pollination by bees.

In addition, it is estimated that without bees to pollinate crops and pastures, supermarket shelves would be largely empty of many foodstuffs that Kiwis expect to pile into grocery trolleys during their weekly shop. Honey is a by-product when you consider that every apple, watermelon, stone & berry fruit, as well as a raft of important vegetables and seeds from vegetables to pasture legumes, require insects to pollinate them. While other types of bee in our environment are very important, our honeybee is the principal pollinator of these fruits.

But this economic bounty, and much of the foodstuffs we take for granted, are being threatened because bees themselves are being endangered by the use of crop sprays and crop seeds treated with insecticides containing neonicotinoids.

There’s no doubt that our farmers have a right to protect their crops. However, many are unwitting participants to the damage that neonicotinoids cause as a result to our pollinating insects. The beekeeper/farmer relationship is critical for both parties.

Around the world, the normal bee death rate is 5-10 per cent, but we’re now seeing figures of between 30-40 per cent in some places. If those rates were to find their way onto our shores, the New Zealand economy could be in severe trouble as it is extremely hard financially and physically to sustain a beekeeping business or hobby that makes this sort of annual loss.

Currently, the New Zealand bee death rate is not in the ranges seen in other countries. But the situation regarding neonicotinoids has been deemed serious enough for the chemical to be banned in countries like France, Germany and Italy. And now we are calling for something to be done about it in New Zealand – before it’s too late!

The beekeeping industry is calling for the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) to reassess all products containing neonicotinoids. In an ideal world we would get a temporary ban on the use of these products while a reassessment takes place.

But even this is too little, too late due to the prolonged effects of neonicotinoids which can last in the soil for up to two years after the initial spraying. So even if there was a moratorium in place, we would continue to see the effects on bees for another 24 months.

The National Beekeepers’ Association of New Zealand is currently conducting a bee losses survey to gather data which tracks bee population trends and the impact of pesticides. The results of this survey will be shared with Government and reviewed annually.

If bees are responsible for $4 billion of New Zealand’s economy, and we allow bee death rates to reach levels found in other parts of the world, we’re essentially playing Russian roulette with some of the biggest industries on which this country relies.

And it’s not just the economy that’s under threat either. To quote Albert Einstein “if the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.”

Barry Foster
National Beekeepers’ Association, Vice President (New Zealand)