Europe is poised to take a hard line against pesticides that have been linked to a dramatic decline in bee populations across the globe.
The move was spurred by a burgeoning body of scientific evidence linking neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides chemically similar to nicotine, with colony collapse disorder, a mysterious phenomenon where worker bees vanish.
European Union states voted Monday to restrict the use of three kinds of pesticides -- clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam. These kinds of chemicals can be taken up by the plant through the soil and attack insects through their nervous systems. Neonicotinoids are also frequently applied directly to the seeds of plants.
“I pledge to do my utmost to ensure that our bees, which are so vital to our ecosystem and contribute over 22 billion euros [$29 billion] annually to European agriculture, are protected,” EU Health and Consumer Commissioner Tonio Borg said in a statement Monday.
The vote came after the European Food Safety Authority issued a finding in January that the three pesticides pose high risks to bee health. Fifteen EU nations, including France, Germany and the Netherlands, voted in favor of the pesticide restrictions. The United Kingdom and seven other nations voted against the ban, and four nations -- Ireland, Lithuania, Finland and Greece -- abstained.
The final tally does not reach the majority needed to automatically enact the proposal, so the final decision on implementing a continent-wide ban rests with the European Commission. But the ban seems likely to go through -- “it’s done,” one unnamed source told the Guardian on Monday.
The ban would bar farmers from using any of three kinds of neonicotinoids on bee-pollinated flowering plants, plus the seeds of such plants and the soil around them, starting no later than Dec. 1 of this year. There may be exceptions that allow for using neonicotinoids on bee-attracting crops in greenhouses or using the pesticides on plants after they have flowered. The ban also does not apply to crops grown in the winter, when bees are dormant.
In two years, the European Commission will review the impact of the ban and scrutinize any further scientific evidence linking neonicotinoids to bee decline.
Meanwhile, both UK politicians and pesticide makers have argued that the ban will mean a big hit to food production in Europe. Swiss-based Syngenta, one of the makers of neonicotinoid pesticides, claims the EFSA’s review of the pesticides overestimates the amount of the chemical that insects are exposed to in the field.
“The proposal is based on poor science and ignores a wealth of evidence from the field that these pesticides do not damage the health of bees,” Syngenta COO John Atkin said in a statement Monday. “Instead of banning these products, the commission should now take the opportunity to address the real reasons for bee health decline: disease, viruses and loss of habitat and nutrition.”
Several high-profile scientific studies have pointed toward neonicotinoids as a prime suspect in colony collapse disorder. One such study came in March 2012 in the journal Science, where British scientists reported the results of spraying bumblebee colonies with pesticide levels matching those seen in the field. Treated colonies had a severely reduced growth rate, and the production of new queen bees -- essential to the health of the hive and the establishment of new colonies -- was cut by 85 percent.
In a January 2012 study published in the journal PLoS ONE, German scientists reported how doses of neonicotinoids don’t kill foraging bees right away but do result in them failing to return to their hives. Disappearing bees are one of the major symptoms of colony collapse disorder.
In the U.S., anti-pesticide action has been more of a bottom-up effort. Last month, a coalition of beekeepers, environmental groups and consumer organizations sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for allegedly failing to protect the nation’s bee population. The U.S. lawsuit focuses on two kinds of neonicotinoids: Bayer’s clothianidin and Syngenta’s thiamethoxam, both of which fall under the EU ban.
“America’s beekeepers cannot survive for long with the toxic environment EPA has supported,” plaintiff and beekeeper Steve Ellis said in a press release in March. “Bee-toxic pesticides in dozens of widely used products, on top of many other stresses our industry faces, are killing our bees and threatening our livelihoods.”