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I wrote about the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on honey bees in my article on beekeeping in 2009, see 7. Articles (f) Beekeeping.     Now in 2013 neonicotinoid pesticides are in the news and an EU ban on the 3 most toxic will come into force in December, and will last for 2 years.  This is a start.  Neonicotinoids should never have been approved for use.  Regulation (EC) No.1107/2009 Annexe II Criteria for approval p.43 states that “A plant protection product should not be persistent in the environment”.  The persitance criterion is fulfilled where the half-life in soil is less than 120 days.  Neonicotinoids are very persistent, clothianidin (produced by Bayer in 2003, when their patent protection for imidacloprid expired) has a half-life of over 500 days (in some cases persisting for over 3 years):  it is also toxic to earthworms, ants and collembola (springtails), and can build up in the soil year on year affecting (and expressed in) any following crop or wildflower.  They are soluble in water which means that water sources can be contaminated by field run-offs or overspray, potentially devastating aquatic life.  Many different products are produced including seed dressings, foliar sprays, soil drenches, turf applications, home and garden uses, and veterinary products (i.e.  pet’s flea treatment).

Bayer reportedly made US $830 million for sales of imidacloprid and US$267 million for clothianidin in 2010.  In the UK cropland treated with neonicotinoids went from 0.65% in 1994 to 30% in 2010    (3 million acres).

It is argued that there is no proof that bee colonies have been badly affected by neonicotinoids:  this is not true.  North Dakota beekeepers took Bayer to court in 1995 when rapeseed crops were sprayed with imidacloprid and they lost their colonies of bees.  The US has colony collapse disorder (CCD) and a study funded by Harvard Centre for the Environment in 2010 found that when  16 colonies of bees were exposed to low levels of imidacloprid, 15 died out within 23 weeks with identical characteristics to CCD*.   France lost one-third of its commercial honeybees in 1999 following widespread use of imidacloprid as a seed dressing for sunflowers.  In Germany 8 different seed treatments containing neonicotinoids were banned for use on sweet corn following honey bee deaths (11,000 colonies).  Similar die-offs have been reported in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Greece, Belgium, Argentina, Australia, Canada, Japan, China and India.  Japanese ecologists are pressing for a ban.

Many independent studies have found that neonicotinoids affect the nervous system of bees, disrupting foraging, orientation and causing premature death.  Guttation drops (like sweat on the leaves) on treated sweet corn plants will kill thirsty bees within minutes.  No-one has been able to test the effects on developing bees fed contaminated pollen but it is thought that the bees immune systems are compromised, causing increased susceptibility to diseases – and increased levels of the gut pathogen nosema are seen.

In Italy neonicotinoid maize seed treatment was banned in 2008, since then bee populations have been recovering.   The monitoring network APENET reported bee deaths in maize growing areas were reduced to zero during the growing period and winter losses declined from 37.5% to 15% in 2010-11.  APENET has also found that farmers’ untreated maize crops did not suffer reduced yield and productivity was high.  They concluded that banning neonicotinoids on maize greatly reduced bee mortality and by rotating crops pests were kept under control and yields maintained.

Although a 2-year ban is due from this December we should not become complacent.  Britain did not vote for this ban, we abstained.  Two years is not enough given the long lasting contamination of the soil.  Unfortunately politicians seem to be influenced by corporate interests rather than the public or the environment.  The public can make a difference checking ingredients and refusing to buy products containing neonicotinoids (i.e. in garden pesticides and spot-on flea treatments).  There is evidence of adverse health effects on mammals.  Gestational exposure in rats to a single dose of imidacloprid “produced significant neurobehavioral deficits and pathological alterations in their offspring”.    Treated maize is fed to cows and they provide us with milk and meat.

The plight of honeybees has caught the public imagination partly because they are such good pollinators of our food crops.  All other pollinating insects are suffering too and so are birds, bats and amphibians.  You might want to watch an American video “Vanishing of the Bees” online at

*In Situ Replication of Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder, by C. Lu, K. Warchol and R. Callahan, Bulletin of Insectology, June 2012.

For the names of all the different neonicotinoid pesticides see Wikipedia online.

Sally Viney

A friend of mine inherited a couple of beehives, which had been left in the garden when he moved to a new house.  They were empty of bees and rather sad looking, I asked him if he planned to keep bees “Oh no” he said “I’m scared of being stung” and I agreed whole heartedly with him – why on earth would anyone want that.  Later we moved to Kent, next door to a picture-book family farm with cows, sheep, horses, chickens, guinea fowl, geese, dogs, cats and bees (the farmer and his wife were perfect too), the bees were looked after by a local beekeeper.  We used to walk our dog down the footpath past the beehives into the woods and one day the beekeeper was there with them – he shouted just one word, “RUN”, so my daughter and I ran with the noise of angry bees around us, we continued running deep into the woods but one or two bees followed us and we both got stung several times on the head and suffered for about a week afterwards with the diminishing pain.  Another time the farmer’s daughter had to jump into the pond to escape clouds of angry bees, afterwards she had trouble with her hearing until the doctor found and removed a bee from down inside her ear.  A friend of my mother’s kept bees for years and my mother used to complain about how sticky her whole kitchen got with the honey harvest.

I’m not sure when it was that my curiosity about bees got the better of me.  Perhaps being a herbalist and devoting my time to caring for patients, plants and the soil in the interests of health helped because I found bees were not healthy.  As a wild creature surely they should be, but they can suffer from viral infections, bacterial diseases, fungal infections, protozoa and most hives are now plagued by the varroa mite which can get quickly out of control during the summer (the number of mites doubling each 4 or 5 weeks) until they cause the demise of the whole colony of bees due to deformity and disease.

I joined my local bee association in 2001 and started going to their meetings.  These are always on the 2nd Sunday of the month from April to September.  They are held at different homes each month and in this way we all work with each other’s bees and see how they’re getting on.  It is fascinating and the hives can vary tremendously from year to year.  The beekeepers kindly gave me a second-hand hive and in no time we were called to collect a swarm from a garden in the next village.  The swarm looked very large to me and the noise of all those bees was overwhelming, I had to pretend not to mind but wished I could be inside the house behind glass windows watching with the family there.  We managed to get most of the bees settled into a cardboard box, which was then covered by a sheet leaving a small entrance for the bees still left flying nearby.  Later we returned, collected the box of bees and I was helped to site my hive (facing south-east away from the prevailing wind and to catch the early sun) and shake the bees into it.  To begin with the hive consisted of a brood box filled with frames of wax for the bees to build comb onto, this is placed on the floor which has an entrance for the bees at one side, a cover board goes on top the box with a roof over that – this particular hive is called a ‘national hive’.  Later when the bees need more room to store honey a ‘super’ is added above the brood box – this is a shallower box with shallower frames.

I was taught to use a queen excluder to stop the Queen wandering up into the super and laying her eggs there – to destroy queen cells to try and prevent swarming – to put apistan strips in the hive to kill the varroa mites but although I bought some the first year I couldn’t bring myself to use them.  In fact I don’t do any of this now.  My thoughts were always how can we help the bees to become more healthy and to live more naturally.  My bees are lucky because they are surrounded by a medicine chest of flowers, medical herbs grown biodynamically for my patients but they can fly a long way, it is said up to about three miles and we have farmland around us where sprays are used on the crops.

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I’ve been interested in food production for maximum health for many years and since 2001 have been growing herbs for medicine and practising as a medical herbalist. I came across Biodynamics in 1994 reading the book ‘Secrets of the Soil’ by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird. The Biodynamic method of treating the soil and plants originated from a series of lectures on Agriculture given by Rudolf Steiner in 1924 to farmers who were worried about the loss of soil fertility and the decreasing viability of their seeds. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was an Austrian philosopher, scientist and clairvoyant and so Biodynamic Agriculture comes with a spiritual dimension, it includes influences from the cosmos and goes beyond what can be perceived with the senses.

At first I thought ‘who in their right mind would accept Rudolf Steiner’s advice and do as he suggested since it is so strange and time consuming’ and then I decided that it must be worth the effort if people actually bother to do it and the only way to find out if it really works is by experience. It is interesting to note that biodynamic agriculture is very popular in Australia where growing conditions can be challenging.

Since deciding to garden biodynamically, my life has been lived in moon-time, or that’s how it feels. Apart from using the Biodynamic sprays on the land and the herb preparations in the compost, I use Maria Thun’s planting and sowing calendar to grow and harvest medicinal herbs from my garden and from the fields and forest around. Maria Thun lives in Germany and has done extensive and meticulous trials over 56 years, her calendar has been published since 1963. Through her trials she has found that the moon exerts a huge effect on plant growth, so also do the planets, and the constellations of the zodiac, and I have found that a herb harvested at the perfect time on the perfect day according to Maria Thun’s calendar makes the best tincture in the world (this is assessed purely by taste). Of course it is not possible to achieve this every year because of the weather and other commitments.

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