Bees with Alzheimer’s – the price of pesticides

5 April, 2013

Imagine what it must be like to forget your way home. To not be able to communicate effectively with others, especially those you live with. To forget the faces, colours, sounds and smells that have been the landmarks in your ‘map’ of life.

These things are part of the experience of Alzheimer’s, a disease that is becoming increasingly common in our ageing population; but also one whose prevalence is rising faster than the population is ageing.

‘Losing’ your mind is NOT a normal part of ageing; something else is causing it. Two recent studies into the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides in bees only strengthen my belief that the cause is environmental.

Both studies found that exposure to common pesticides, neonics and organophosphates, makes bees confused and forgetful. The pesticide exposure disrupts healthy brain activity altering the bees’ behaviour and leaving them unable to learn.

More distressing, and poignant, is the finding that pesticide exposure renders the bees unable to remember the scent of nectar-rich flowers – vital in a bee’s search of food – and to relay that information back to the hive. Remembering is essential to survival not just to that single bee but to the whole hive.

Our bees have Alzheimer’s. And it’s our fault.

Of course, what we do to the natural world we also do to ourselves and the link between pesticide exposure in humans and Alzheimer’s disease is well established. Indeed some data shows that you have a 53% higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s if you have been exposed to pesticides (and an overall 38% higher risk of developing any kind of dementia).

It’s against this broader backdrop that we must view the EU’s recent failure to ban neonicotinoid pesticides.

The European Commission recently called for a temporary moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids after a report by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that they posed a high acute risk to pollinators.

But two weeks ago 14 out of the 27 EU nations opposed the ban. Shamefully, the UK, along with Germany, couldn’t even be bothered to vote on the issue.

In the midst of public outcry, the EU issued a statement saying it ‘remains committed to ambitious and proportionate legislative measures’, and, if the EU members fail to reach agreement in the next two months the ban will go through anyway.

Here’s hoping.

Today after we posted this editorial The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), Parliament’s cross party green watchdog, issued a statement that it wants to see a suspension of the use of neonicotinoids from January 2014.

The influential committee acknowledged that  two thirds of wild insect pollinators, such as bumblebees, have suffered population declines in the UK and a growing body of research suggests the use of three specific neonic pesticides – imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam – is to blame.

Frustratingly, DEFRA has responded to the call by simply defending its continued complacency on the issue of neonics.

On this site we will continue to speak out and we urge you to do the same. Beyond their beauty – and value to our economy and food system – our bees are also an early warning system. When we find the compassion and the will to save them, we are also saving ourselves.

Pat Thomas, Editor