Pesticide Bee Study Confirms Link With Wild Population Decline

A recent pesticide bee study has confirmed what many researchers had already assumed concerning the decline of wild bee populations — there is a clear link between the two.

From the journal Nature Communications, a new study in England takes a closer look at whether the class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids have any link to declining wild bee populations. With the results suggesting a strong possibility, the fact that neonicotinoids are commonly used on crops only reinforces the idea that this is what’s to blame for the demise of wild bees. In essence, the very substance farmers apply to their crops in order to prevent insect pests from devouring the harvest could actually be harming the main component to those bountiful crops in the first place.

Bees pollinating flowers
[Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]

Given that bees are the primary pollinators of most crops around the world, this finding should be quite troubling for anyone thinking about the long-term consequences of destroying a vital component to food propagation. The study looked at 60 different species of bees in England over the course of 18 years and found that those foraging on pesticide-treated crops experienced much more severe losses than species foraging on other plants.

“It’s nice to see the use of long-term data to look at trends in pesticide impacts over longer time scales,” said Dara Stanley, a plant ecology lecturer at the National University of Ireland Galway. “That is something that has been missing in the debate on bees and pesticides so far, and there have been many calls to look at effects over time.”

The use of neonicotinoid pesticides has become a hot-button topic in recent years, leading the European Union to actually place a ban on these substances in 2013. Some exemptions have since been allowed in the United Kingdom, but in the United States, where there are some 4,000 wild species of bees as opposed to just 250 in the U.K., neonicotinoid pesticides are still widely used. Only now does a study on the long-term effects of these harmful pesticides exist to place a link between the causation of a dwindling bee population and the use of these substances.

The plants used to establish a connection between bees and the use of these pesticides were oilseed rape crops, the biggest mass flowering crop in the U.K. where neonicotinoids have been widely applied. This application began on a large scale back in 2002, giving the study plenty of time to evaluate the impact on bees.

Tracking the bees and seeing which flowers they visited for food was vital to knowing just what kind of impact the pesticides actually had on their populations. It was unfortunate to discover that about one-fifth of the bee population’s decline was due to neonicotinoids.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

While there are always going to be ebbs and flows in certain wild populations of organisms, it’s hard not to wonder if the impact of these pesticides could be far more damaging to bees than the natural world.

A spokesman for one of the main manufacturers of neonicotinoids, Bayer, had his own input on the study.

“The authors chose to investigate only one potential factor, namely neonicotinoid insecticides,” Bayer spokesperson Jeffrey Donald told the Washington Post. “This was chosen out of many different factors which may have an influence on the development of wild bees, for example landscape structures, climatic conditions, availability of specific foraging plants and nesting habitats. It is a well-known fact that the structure of agricultural landscapes in large parts of Europe has changed substantially in the last decades. The area of landscape structures available for nesting or foraging, especially for specialized species, has significantly declined, resulting in fewer habitats for pollinators.”

But the blame game is not the most important part of this discussion, as bees are vital to the ecosystem, and this study provides irrefutable evidence that mankind has played a role in their decline. Whether it’s pesticides, destruction of habitat, or anything else in between, bees have seen drastic drops in numbers over recent years. Hopefully, some solution on the pesticide front will at least help change the direction of bee populations around the world.

[Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]