Insecticides threaten Europe’s Bees

EU authorities will shortly announce whether they will authorise Fipronil, an active substance used in the manufacture of new insecticides. This active substance is suspected of seriously harming bees. Friends of the Earth Europe, Inter-Environnement Wallonie (IEW), Nature et Progrès Belgique, and Pesticides Action Network Europe (PAN Europe), call on the EU not to authorise Fipronil, which has yet to be fully evaluated.

The bee-keeping industry has suffered heavy annual losses over the past decade in numerous countries, in Europe and elsewhere. The suspected culprit is the use of new insecticides. These products are systemic (contaminate the entire plant), persistent and have chronic, or long-term, effect, poisoning bees and altering their behaviour, resulting in the rapid death of the hive. One of the active substances which have been blamed for this outcome is Fipronil, which is currently being used under provisional authorisation. The EU authorities are currently examining the possibility of including it on their 'positive' list of substances (under the Pesticides Authorisation Directive 91/414), which Member States may then authorise.

A committee of experts whose advice is key to the authorisation process, the Standing Committee on the Food Chain & Animal Health (which assists the Commission), is visibly wavering between simply banning this substance, and choosing an as-yet unspecified 'flexible' solution, which would leave EU Member States a veritable hot potato to handle.

The stakes are high. On one hand, Fipronil earns its manufacturer, BASF, an annual income of several hundreds of million euros(1). But on the other hand, apart from honey and pollen production, the bee-keeping industry also represents the economic value of pollination to agriculture (worth some US$200bn worldwide each year, according to the Food & Agriculture Organisation(2)). What is more, by contributing to the economic welfare of many small growers, bee-keeping backs up policies which are struggling to curb rural desertification, which is a challenge in several European countries. General environmental interests are also on this side of the equation, since Fipronil, a persistent product, which is toxic even in small doses, ends up accumulating in surface water and the air(3), where its presence is beginning to cause concern.

Bee-keepers and environmental groups are therefore jointly calling for the Commission and the Member States experts to ban Fipronil. They are also demanding that a system be put in place to evaluate the risks associated with pesticides, also taking into account the chronic effects of poisoning, analysis of which is not currently done. They point out that the beehive, a complex organism which, along with nectar gathering, does an extraordinary job of micro-sampling and thus provides a vital advance warning system for our environment. The disappearance of bees is a warning to which we must urgently pay serious attention. The EU authorities today have the opportunity to acknowledge this fact by refusing to add Fipronil to the 'positive' list.

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Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN Europe) gratefully acknowledges the financial support from the European Union, European Commission, DG Environment, LIFE programme. Sole responsibility for this publication lies with the authors and the funders are not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained herein.