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Plan Bee The hunt for the cause of collapsing hive populations can now begin in earnest If bees

could sigh, they would surely be sighing with relief. A European moratorium on the use of three types of pesticide, passed yesterday, is an important step forward in the race to save bee populations from collapse and to preserve the role they play in securing the world’s food supply. The UK Government has opposed this plan from the outset. When the proposal for a two-year ban on “neonicotinoids” was first voted on in March, Britain abstained. Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, remains a vehement opponent of the ban and has become a hate figure among bee activists. He does not deserve the opprobrium: he is right that more work needs to be done to establish exactly why bee numbers have fallen so steeply in recent decades. But the link between bee deaths and the substances targeted by the Commission is strong enough to warrant action. The moratorium should make it possible to guage whether bee colonies recover in the absence of neonicotinoids. It also represents an opportunity for comprehensive study of the other possible causes of falling bee numbers, and for creating a foolproof strategy for their revival. For the sake of bees but also every other species that depends on them, failure is not an option. Bees and other insects pollinate three quarters of the planet’s food crops, but bees in particular appear to be in near-terminal decline. In Europe and the United States the number of viable colonies has shrunk by at least half in the past 30 years. Bee populations have also collapsed in Asia, and in China tens of thousands of humans have been put to work pollinating crops by hand with tiny brushes.

Where cheap labour cannot substitute for bees, their labour has significant financial value. In Britain alone it would cost an estimated £1.8 billion to hand-pollinate crops traditionally dependent on bees, while the total value of insect pollination to world trade has been put at $1 trillion per year. Scottish and French peer-reviewed studies of the effects of nicotinoids on bees have yielded alarming results, including an 85 per cent fall in queen bee numbers and a doubling of the number of bees that “disappear”, or fail to return to their hives after foraging trips. The coalition’s view that such studies do not justify the moratorium is based largely on the fact that they have been conducted in labs, not in the field. It is true that some of the research suggests that bees have been fed far higher doses of neonicotinoids than wild bees would ingest. It is also true, as Mr Paterson’s aides note, that bees and neonicotinoids appear to coexist comfortably in Hungary, which boasts a thriving honey industry and heavy use of the pesticides on its wheat crop. Critics of the ban note that it takes little account of the risk older pesticides will pose to bees if used in increased quantities in place of neonicotinoids. Opposition to the ban does not necessarily indicate collusion with pesticide manufacturers. Sir Mark Walport, the Government’s chief scientific advisor and an academic of unimpeachable integrity, has called the moratorium a mistake “based on a misreading of the currently available evidence”. Nonetheless, the weight of that evidence, in some 30 separate studies and a sixmonth review by the European Food Safety Authority, is sufficiently compelling to warrant this first step. The battle for the bees has only just begun.