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No to neonics: Protecting Frome's bees [WFJ #17]
When politics and pollinators collide
Like in so many other ways, Frome is a freak. 95% of the honey consumed in the UK is imported, yet it would surely be a stretch to apply the same ratio to this here town.
The likes of Louise Bees, Black Bee Honey, The Bee Depot, all make honey from local colonies. Not to mention the innumerable producers and hobbyists who keep apiaries in their back gardens, their bees foraging from neighbours’ Crocuses and lavender.
Frome’s enamourment for honey knows no bounds, and, while the same is true of bees (every other Fromer seems to be a beekeeper), this is largely undocumented – a quick Google search yields little more than a few honey makers and the ‘Busy Bees’ cleaning service.
This, and upcoming WFJ issues written by Claire Jefferies, will start to address that. Claire lives in Frome and works as a gardener for the Bee Friendly Trust, a London-based organisation helping create habitats for bees to thrive. The BFT, as you may have noticed, has done sterling work up at Frome station.
There’ll be more on that later down the line from Claire, but for now – as the WFJ’s Chief Bee & Honey Correspondent – she gets us primed on one of the biggest threats to local bees and, by extension, local honey.
No to neonicotinoids, by Claire Jefferies
Neonicotinoids, like any other type of insecticide, are used to destroy insects that would otherwise feed or live on a farmer’s crop. They are systemic pesticides, meaning they are absorbed into every part of a plant. When an insect feeds on pollen or nectar, the neonicotinoid (or neonic for short) can damage its nervous system and motor function, leading to paralysis and death.
Neonicotinoids were effectively banned by the UK government as part of EU law, but since the UK left the EU things have changed. On 1st March 2022, the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) authorised the use of a neonic called thiamethoxam on farmers’ sugar beet crops.1 The aim was to mitigate the beet yellows virus carried by aphids.
Bee populations are already plummeting – UK pollinators have seen a 30% decline as a whole since 1980 due to pesticide use, loss of habitat and food sources, and the effects of climate breakdown, while a study in May cited a drop of nearly 60% in flying insects across Great Britain since 2004.2
42 Acres is a regenerative farm, nine miles south of Frome. Tasha Stevens-Vallecillo is Production Manager there and, before working at 42 Acres, the bees she looked after had an unfortunate encounter with pesticides. “One day,” says Tasha, “none of our bees returned. I believe they probably were sprayed by neonicotinoids because they just didn’t come home. There were some dead at the entrance but most of them just didn’t come back.”
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Tasha and her colleague Rafal Bartnicki are now in the process of creating a Sacred Bee Garden at 42 Acres – a halfway house between conservation and conventional beekeeping. She hopes these new bees should be safe, as the farm’s neighbours practice organic and rewilding farming methods. “Forming good relationships with local farmers is a really important thing,” says Tasha. She has been told by a beekeeper that pesticides are sprayed on oilseed rape quite close by, but to mitigate risks to honeybees it is done at night when bees don’t fly.
Debates around the use of pesticides might be heightening now, but it was several years ago that Frome Town Council took the decision to not use them. “We tend to favour the more traditional methods”, says the town council’s Environment Manager Chris Stringer. Chris oversees the town’s ‘outside services’ team. “In the more formal beds in Victoria Park,” he says, “we’ll put mulch and membranes down to keep out plants that we don’t want necessarily for aesthetic landscape purposes. If we get plants coming up through paths or play surfaces, [we apply] hot water.
“When we took the decision [to not spray pesticides], there was a lot of public interest at the time. But my feeling was that it was from people who were already of that opinion. Part of the difficulty is that if you can still buy them on every shelf in every supermarket and every garden centre – there’s probably a lot of assumptions made among those who haven’t necessarily read about pesticides and they think, ‘what’s the problem?’’’
I ask Chris about the council’s engagement with local farmers on pesticides. ‘‘From public meetings there is definitely a lot of interest from people in Frome about how farmers do manage their land. I would think organisations like the County Council and Somerset Wildlife Trust might be better placed to have those conversations. Perhaps maybe more of the parish councils - they might have good working relationships with the farmers. Chances are everybody knows each other already.’’
From his response, local governments’ hands seem tied. The issue of pesticides also goes way beyond poisoned wildlife, and rivers polluted with run-off from farms. Tasha discussed this recently with the beekeeper whose neighbouring farms spray pesticides at night – the beekeeper said farmers can be very aware of messages to ‘save the bees’, but can also be conscious of other insects too. “It's about the natural system as a whole,” Tahsa says. “You can't blame farmers who are equally victim to a capitalist society and are part of an industry that is under huge financial and climatic pressures.”
Tasha describes a regenerative method of disease control used in 42 Acres’ new Bee Garden: “We are using herbal remedies for treating veroa, which is the most common issue that has presented itself in the last 20-30 years. It’s a mite that lives on the bee, and so instead of using oxalic acid or other types of acid which actually burn them off but don’t penetrate the bee, I’m using herbal remedies which you sprinkle in the hive to encourage the bee to clean themselves. When they clean, they pull the mites off of one another. It’s actually an extremely effective way of managing them.”
But is there something we, as consumers, can do to help bees and other pollinators? The Soil Association, which accredits farm produce as ‘Organic’, heavily opposes neonics. Looking for their mark on products is a place to start. Be aware, however, labels aren’t always best relied on – the Red Tractor quality mark, according to the Red Tractor website, ‘allows people to recognise food that has been produced to high standards across the whole length of the food chain’. However the scheme has been pulled up recently for failing to regulate the use of pesticides on farms.
Transparency and regenerative disease control throughout the food system are both key. Until we have more of both, supporting any local market gardens and producers to be part of our local food supply – who don't use pesticides and herbicides – is a step in the right direction.
Further reading / action
Pesticide Action Network UK: pan-uk.org
‘The Secret Poisoning of Our Countryside’: soilassociation.org