The finger of suspicion is pointed at certain best-selling pesticides and the evidence is starting to look damning, claims MEP

Why are bees dying? Since 1994, when French beekeepers began to report that honeybees were not returning to their hives or were behaving in an abnormal and disorientated way, stories of declining number of bees and even of complete colony collapse have become commonplace across Europe. It is upsetting and worrying. Hardworking bees are much loved, competing only with butterflies in the insect popularity stakes and their role as pollinators has enormous commercial value.

The finger of suspicion had been pointed at certain best-selling neonicotinoid pesticides widely used in seed-dressing and soil treatment but also for spraying. The evidence is not conclusive but it is starting to look damning. It is not that they are necessarily lethal to bees but that they are sub-lethal, weakening the bees' resistance to disease and reducing their rate of reproductivity. Perhaps, they also destroy the bees' sense of direction - making it impossible for them to locate their hive after foraging.

The concerns are not new. The French government introduced restrictions on the use of a neonicotinoid seed dressing - 'Gaucho' - back in 1999. Slovenia has since introduced complete prohibitions. Germany and Italy have imposed various restrictions, with the latter subsequently reporting a remarkable fall in the number of cases of bee deaths recorded. But coordinated action at a European level has been missing.

Now the European Food Safety Authority has reviewed the risks associated with the use of three neonicotinoids - clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam. Its conclusions are qualified by declarations that more research is needed, not least because some of the previous studies have been undertaken by the pesticide manufacturers and may not be regarded as wholly impartial. Yet its initial recommendations make quite clear the need for curbs to be introduced. Neonicotinoids should only be used on crops not attractive to honeybees, says the EFSA. There is a risk to bees from exposure to neonicotinoid dust to be found in glasshouses. The guttation fluid or sap from maize, treated with thiamethoxam, has an acute effect on honeybees.

None of this will be welcome news to the pesticide manufacturers. Claims of a link between their products and the death of bees have in the past been hotly denied. Friedhelm Schmider, director-general of the European Crop Protection Association, was this month quoted as saying that "restricting neonicotinoid pesticides on the basis of potential risks will do nothing to improve overall bee health but would do enormous damage to farming and food production in Europe".

Even by the usual standards of industry lobbying, it seems an extreme position to take in view of the scientific evidence now coming to the fore. Perhaps the manufacturers, who claim that an European Union-wide ban on neonicotinoids would cost €17bn over 5 years, are concerned that more attention may be paid to some of the figures from France and Italy. The figures suggest that crop production has hardly been affected in those places where neonicotinoid restrictions have been introduced.

Still, it is unlikely that many people will deny that pesticides often have a significant role to play in achieving maximum crop production. The requirement, it seems, is to stop the bees coming into contact with the neonicotinoids. This may be achieved by a complete ban on their use on crops they most favour - such as rape, sunflower and maize - or a restriction on their use when the plants are in flower. In other instances, perhaps controls on the method of application will be sufficient - especially when considering plants that bees scorn such as beetroot and potatoes.

Last Thursday, the European Parliament's environment committee were keen to hear the response of the European Commission to a question I had tabled on the subject. Many will have been pleased to hear Eric Poudelet, a director in DG SANCO, declare that "we have to act straight away". Although he also admitted that in practice the commission was still "evaluating" and "reflecting" upon the evidence, while waiting for more recommendations from the EFSA. These are due in March. Legislative proposals are certainly possible - that was the message from the commission but no announcement will be made yet. Perhaps, ministers at Monday's meeting of the Agriculture Council will get to hear more.

About the Author

Chris Davies is a Liberal Democrat MEP in the United Kingdom and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group co-ordinator on the European Parliament's Environment Committee