A field of sugar beet

Bees ‘saved’ by cold snap

Harsh weather suppressed aphids that spread disease on sugar beet.
04 March 2021 , Katie Coyne

Bee lovers heaved a sigh of relief this week as plans to temporarily reinstate the use of a banned pesticide to protect sugar beet crops has been halted by the weather.

The recent cold snap across the UK has helped suppress the aphid population, which carries virus yellows, meaning the disease no longer applies the same threat to the sugar beet crop. Farmers will now no longer be allowed to use the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam for seed dressing this spring.

When the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) agreed a temporary lifting of the ban on the use of the neonicotinoid, it did so with the provision that at least 9% of the sugar beet crop would need to be affected by virus yellows, but forecasts suggest this is no longer the case.

However, while environmentalists are grateful the pesticide is off the cards this spring they want further action to prevent the UK government allowing future use.

Neonicotinoids are lethal to bees and pollinators and a third of our food is dependent on these insects. These pesticides linger in the environment and a teaspoon is enough to give a lethal dose to 125 tonnes of honey bees. Author and bee expert Prof Dave Goulson previously described neonicotinoids as ‘novichok for bees’.

The government’s decision on allowing temporary use of the pesticide has not been made public and environmental groups have called for the government to share this evidence.

CIEH President Julie Barratt also joined the call for transparency. She said: “We were very pleased to see neonicotinoids banned because of their impact on pollinators, and in particular honey bees. And if the government is going to allow them to be used it’s important that we can have transparency so we can see the evidence this decision is based on.”

Friends of the Earth said bees and pollinators had been “saved by the weather, not by the government”. It is concerned that the government has indicated it will consider authorising use of this pesticide on sugar beet for another two years, and urged for increased efforts to find alternative ways of tackling pests focusing on agro-ecological methods that “work with nature, not against it”.

The charity has written to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Defra requesting under the Environmental Information Requests legislation to see the evidence used by Westminster in its original decision to allow temporary use of the pesticide.

The Wildlife Trusts questioned the legality of the government’s decision to allow the use of thiamethoxam as it said no new evidence had been presented since former Environment Secretary Michael Gove backed a ban on neonicotinoids. The Trusts also want to know why the present government went ahead with a temporary lifting of the ban when it said the HSE advised the government against doing so.

The charity is also seeking legal advice on further action, and told the Guardian newspaper it would push for a judicial review unless the government could prove its decision was made lawfully.

Defra did not comment.

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