Experts come together to consider pesticide risks to honey bees

A symposium held in Canberra on 9 April 2014 concluded that neonicotinoids, a newer class of insecticide commonly used to control insect pests in crops, are unlikely to be presenting any greater threat to honey bees and crop pollination than other pesticides which have been in use for many years.

The symposium, organised by Plant Health Australia (PHA), the not-for-profit coordinators of the plant biosecurity partnership in Australia, brought together 90 representatives from government agencies, the honey bee industry, crop industries that rely on honey bees for pollination, and researchers, to examine information gathered globally on the effects of neonicotinoids on insect pollinators.

The meeting was sponsored by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) and the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC).

It was agreed that neonicotinoids can adversely impact bee populations if used incorrectly, the same as other pesticides (including insecticides and fungicides), but that with sensible safeguards in place the chemicals can still be used to control pests on crops.

Dr Les Davies, Chief Regulatory Scientist from APVMA, described the findings from a recently-published APVMA summary report looking at the possible risks to bees arising from the various uses of the neonicotinoid insecticides in Australia.

“Having reviewed information collected from around the world over the past few decades, it’s clear that it’s not possible to attribute bee population declines in some parts of the world to the introduction of the neonicotinoid insecticides,” Dr Davies said.

“Current scientific opinion is that these pollinator declines are likely to be caused by multiple interacting pressures which may include habitat loss and disappearance of floral resources, honeybee nutrition, climate change, bee pests and pathogens, miticides and other chemicals intentionally used in hives and bee husbandry practices, as well as agricultural pesticides. To reduce the risks from pesticide use we need to ensure that a range of regulatory, industry stewardship and educational measures are in place.”

Dr Davies added: “Of course, given the importance of bees to agriculture and ecosystems, we will continue to encourage more research and surveillance on the effects of pesticides on bees in Australia.”

The APVMA report acknowledges that incidents of beekeepers losing bee colonies as a result of insecticide do occur, but these can be minimised with proper use and effective communication between the farmer and the beekeeper.

The report concludes that overall, the introduction of neonicotinoids has probably reduced risks to the environment from the application of insecticides.

Rod Turner, PHA’s General Manager for Risk Management, said that the meeting was a positive step towards better understanding how honey bee activities and chemical control of insect pests can occur side-by-side, with correct use and application.

“It’s good news that Australian farmers can use neonicotinoid pesticides when they need to control pests affecting crops,” Mr Turner said. “It was important to sit down with all affected parties and assess the scientific evidence.”

Mr Turner added: “Australia has one of the healthiest bee populations in the world, and the research indicates that with sensible measures we will be able to keep them healthy and benefit from their honey making and pollination services.”

PHA will now work with the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council (AHBIC), the APVMA, and plant industries to devise measures with the focus on ensuring the sustainability of honey bees in Australia.

The report, Neonicotinoids and the health of honey bees in Australia, is available on the APVMA website.