Insects perform invaluable functions in ecosystems. They pollinate flowers, for starters.
Bees and wasps, let’s be honest, do have some annoying habits. They love hovering around our sugary drinks with their sting at the ready when we try swatting them away.
Yet these flying insects perform invaluable functions in ecosystems. They pollinate flowers, thereby helping plants to reproduce. These plants include vital crops that serve as our food from wheat to rice to maize. In fact, small pollinators like bees are key parts of food security around the planet, including Europe, by helping pollinate three-quarters of all globally vital crops.
Yet bees have fallen on hard times as a result of an existential threat: pesticides. Neonicotinoid pesticides represent a grave risk to wild bees and honeybees, whose populations have plummeted across the continent, raising fears that wild bees might go extinct unless decisive action is taken.
According to peer-reviewed studies by the European Food Safety Authority, the toxic contents of commonly used insecticides are deadly not only to pests but also to insects that perform invaluable ecological functions. That should come as no surprise, of course. Toxins do not discriminate between unwanted and useful species.
Industry lobbyists and crop chemical companies have disputed the idea that it is pesticides that have been causing bee populations to be in freefall in Europe and elsewhere. Instead, they have argued that the trend has been caused by a number of factors and that if certain pesticides were banned within the EU, the continent’s farmers would suffer. “Farmers need access to a broad range of tools to protect their crops,” including pesticides, Graeme Taylor of the European Crop Protection Association was quoted as saying last year.
Notwithstanding, the European Union has decided to ban all insecticides with neonicotinoid contents after an earlier partial moratorium, passed in 2013, that restricted the use of neonicotinoids to certain crops. No use of the toxins is now allowed within the EU. “Bee health remains of paramount importance … since it concerns biodiversity, food production and the environment,” said Vytenis Andriukaitis, European commissioner for Health and Food Safety.
Yet it isn’t just bees that have fallen on hard times in Europe and across much of the rest of the world. According to a group of entomologists who have been monitoring the populations of insects at Germany’s nature reserves an “Insect Armageddon” is underway.
In the past 27 years the numbers of insects have plummeted by a shocking 75%, largely as a results of the excessive use of insecticides. A growing absence of insects from Europe’s meadows and forests is an alarming development for biodiversity in several ways. Some 80% of wild plants are estimated to depend on insects for pollination while 60% of wild birds feed on insects.
“The whole system of having food production, a way of farming, which is entirely reliant on chucking on bucket-loads of chemicals is not sustainable,” warns Dave Goulson, a biology professor in the United Kingdom.
Half a century ago destructive pesticides like DDT were banned in the sake of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a book of environmentalism published in 1962 which documented the havoc the widespread use of insecticides wrought on nature in the United States. Yet the lessons of the past have been largely forgotten, Goulson argues.
“We banned a whole bunch of pesticides — but then we introduced new ones to replace them, many of which then eventually we banned,” he told an Australian media outlet. “So we introduced even more, including neonicotinoids, and 20 years into their use, we’re starting to realize that they too are harming the environment.”