Chive flower with bees

The neonics ban – protecting bees from pesticides

An almost complete ban on neonicotinoids comes into force across the EU later this year. Here's what Friends of the Earth did to protect bees from these harmful pesticides and more.
By Celeste Hicks    |      26 Sep 2018    |      9 min

Bees are vital to a healthy environment and economy.

As one of our best pollinating insects, they are key to stable, healthy food supplies. By transferring pollen between flowering plants bees keep the cycle of life turning.

Concerns over bee decline first gained attention with steep falls in honeybee colonies over a decade ago. But there are also multiple threats facing our many and varied species of wild bees, actually our most important pollinators.

The threats were identified as habitat destruction, climate change, disease and the wide use of pesticides. In particular evidence started pointing to the impact of neonicotinoid insecticides – 'neonics'.

Neonics have been used on many plants, including oil seed rape to control pests such as cabbage stem flea beetle and peach-potato aphid.

Person in protective suit, goggles and gasmask spraying plants in a field.
Man applying pesticides
Credit: iStock/DuxX

The Bee Cause – our campaign to save bees

Realising the danger to our bee populations Friends of the Earth launched The Bee Cause in 2012.

It became one of our longest-running campaigns.

We worked on a number of levels – from petitioning local and central government to encouraging ordinary people to plant wildflower seeds in their gardens. We created a pop-up wildflower meadow on London’s concrete South Bank outside the National Theatre, and gave away 20,000 free packs of bee-friendly wildflower seeds.

Friends of the Earth bee meadow, South Bank. Two people in bee costumes in deck chairs.
Friends of the Earth bee meadow, South Bank
Credit: Friends of the Earth

We worked with scientists, businesses and other organisations – from Buglife to the Women’s Institute.

We also built important relationships with other campaign organisations across Europe, such as Greenpeace, Avaaz and 38 degrees. Together we achieved more than 5 million signatures on a petition calling on European governments to ban the use of neonics.

Crucially, we would never have been able to achieve this success without our partnership with the players of the People's Postcode Lottery. To date they have raised £4,924,309 for Friends of the Earth.

Supporter power to help the bees

Most of all we relied on our network of committed supporters. We couldn't have done it without you.

Thousands of you wrote letters and petitions to your MPs and ministers. You asked for a national Bee Action Plan which would tackle all the causes of bee decline. You called on them to back tougher restrictions on neonics – at the time the government was against a ban.

With persistence we shifted the government’s position. One MP told us that at one point they were receiving more letters about bees than anything else.

2 Bee Cause protestors in bee costumes walking down Whitehall outside Downing Street
Bee Cause protestors on the way to Downing Street
Credit: Friends of the Earth

And it worked.

In 2013 we helped the Welsh government launch the world's first National Pollinators Plan . The UK government agreed the National Pollinator Strategy for England  the following year. Scotland launched its 10 year Pollinator Strategy  in 2017 and we also advised on a pollinator plan for All-Ireland.

Great British Bee Count – our citizen science project

In 2013 we launched the Great British Bee Count which enables ordinary people across the country to send in photos and sightings of bees using a specially designed app.

Over the past 5 years, the Great British Bee Count has been highly popular with our supporters. In 2018, 23,755 people took part. Some 480,000 bees were spotted, including an amazing 50 different species – among them some real rarities.

2 small girls by greenery using chart to identify bees for Great British Bee Count
Children do the Bee Count
Credit: Friends of the Earth

Working with farmers to benefit nature

Many farmers had relied on neonics for pest control for many years. Some in the farming and pesticide industries had tried to sow doubt about the evidence that neonics harm bees.

But at Friends of the Earth we knew it was vital to engage the farmers who believed in other ways to protect crops.

Peter Lundgren grows wheat and oilseed rape in Lincolnshire. He stopped using neonics 8 years ago, and now uses a regime of encouraging other predatory insects and limited use of alternative pesticides. He argues that better assessment of the threat from pests was more important than blanket precautionary applications of chemicals.

“There’s a pay-off for ensuring healthy and increasing population of bees and beneficial insects. They can do our work for us – and they don’t charge for providing the service,” he says.

Since ditching neonics Peter's yields have contradicted the economics losses forecast by the agro industry.

Casually dressed "green" farmer Peter Lundgren with background of yellow flowers.

Bees were iconic and had emotional resonance for people – it opened the way to having a national conversation about the need for healthy natureCraig Bennett, CEO Friends of the Earth

Clear science

With a Pollinator Strategy in place, the scientific evidence continued to stack up against neonicotinoids. We decided to focus on a ban on 3 types of these harmful pesticides.

We were delighted when a partial ban was introduced across the EU in 2013. But it was clear that the intensive farming lobby was going to continue to defend the use of these products.

And then 2 important studies published in 2017 and 2018 confirmed the harm neonics were doing.

A 2,000 hectare study across 3 EU countries found evidence of harm to honeybees and wild bees. It found that for bumblebees and solitary bees, higher concentrations of neonic residues found in nests resulted in fewer queens.

Importantly, a European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) report published in early 2018 confirmed that most uses of neonicotinoids represent a risk to wild bees and honeybees. This was based on a review of more than 1,500 studies.

It also concluded that the pesticides can remain in the soil and drift as dust to affect untreated crops.

Close-up of 3 bees flying from lilac-coloured flowers, possibly allium.
Credit: iStock/Proxyminder

The end for neonicotinoids

We were delighted in late 2017 when UK environment secretary Michael Gove said he would back tougher restrictions on 3 kinds of neonics across the UK.

That decision has been credited for helping to persuade other EU member states that time was up for neonics. And when it came to the European vote in April 2018, 16 countries voted for an almost complete ban on the outdoor use of all neonics.

The message could not have been clearer. Neonics were bad for bees.

More ways to help bees

Although this ban is fantastic news for our best pollinators, there is still much more to do. We need to continue to pressure local councils to adopt pollinator plans so that urban landscapes are better managed.

Gardeners can let their gardens get a little wilder – cut down pesticides and let wild flowers grow. This will help to attract many more bees.

Let's hope our bees will now have the chance to recover and delight us once again.

4 children in countryside among lots of yellow flowers
Children help to plant a wildflower meadow
Credit: Friends of the Earth

Change the way we farm

At the same time, this is a great opportunity for us to look again at the way we farm.

In October 2017 a shocking report from nature reserves in Germany reported that the number of flying insects has crashed by 75% over 27 years. The authors listed pesticides as a likely cause.

DEFRA’s chief scientist believes we are using too many chemicals. Even one potential alternative to neonics, sulfoxaflor, has been found to also have harmful effects on bees.

Farming with heavy reliance on pesticides is not sustainable in the long run.

“Taking an approach that works with nature – not against it – should be the norm for farmers in order to conserve our pollinator populations and natural predators,” argues farmer Peter Lundgren.

Brexit and bees

The government is currently re-writing its farming policy for when we leave the EU. It has promised that a new policy and payment system for farmers will help to protect the environment from intensive farming.

Friends of the Earth is calling for a significant reduction in the use of toxic pesticides on our farmland. We're also calling for better support for farmers to get off the chemical treadmill and find alternative ways to protect their crops.

Please consider signing the petition to make sure there's a clear plan to reduce pesticides and make the countryside a safer place for wildlife.

At Friends of the Earth we have the strategy and experience as an organisation to keep going – for as long as it takes.

Patience really is a virtue.

Person in bee costume and lots of children in field with trees in background
Volunteers on the Bee Cause
Credit: Friends of the Earth

Bee-saving timeline

2012 – Bee Saver Kit launched.

2013 – Partial ban on neonicotinoids announced.

2013 – Great British Bee Count launched.

2014 – Friends of the Earth holds its first Bee Summit.

2015 – Supporters persuade local councils to adopt local Bee Action plans.

2017 – UK environment secretary announces temporary complete ban in the UK.

2017 – 10 leading garden centres agree to stop stocking neonics.

2018 – Almost total ban approved by EU lawmakers.