Bulletin

Sussex research exposes secret cocktail of toxic pesticides in hedgerows and wildflowers

Sussex scientists have discovered that bees are exposed to a chemical cocktail when feeding from wildflowers next to neonicotinoid-treated crops.

Hogweed plantThe wild flowers found by researchers to be contaminated by neonicotinoids and other toxic sprays included Hogweed

These chemical cocktails could make the impact of neonicotinoids up to 1,000 times more potent than previously realised.

One in 10 species of Europe's wild bees is facing extinction, and neonicotinoid insecticides are increasingly seen as contributing to these declines. In addition to neonicotinoids, farmers may spray some non-organic crops a dozen or more times while they are growing, with anything up to 23 different chemicals.

New research by the University of Sussex and supported by the Soil Association reveals that pollinators consuming pollen from these crops or from nearby wildflowers will ingest a cocktail of fungicides and insecticides. A prior study suggests these fungicides could act synergistically, making the insecticides up to 1,000 times more deadly than they are on their own.

To combat bee decline, the government’s Pollinator Strategy has focused on creating ‘safe havens’ for bees by increasing flower habitats next to fields – yet this research shows these flowers may be laden with dangerous chemicals.

The wild flowers found by researchers to be contaminated by neonicotinoids and other toxic sprays included: Creeping Buttercup, White Campion, Scented Mayweed, Hogweed, Poppy, Wild Rose, Burnet Saxifrage and Fool's Parsley.

Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex, and one of the authors of the paper, said: “It is clear that insects visiting wildflowers in field margins are chronically exposed to a cocktail of chemicals. The effects that this has on their health have never been studied, and there is an urgent need to do so. In the meantime, the precautionary principle would suggest that we should take steps to reduce this exposure as much as possible.”

Peter Melchett, Policy Director of the Soil Association, said: “These findings are shocking. Neonicotinoids are supposedly highly targeted insecticides yet the researchers have found that they are turning up in the pollen of poppies, blackberries and hawthorn blossom in hedges, at levels that on their own are enough to cause harm to bees. Worse still, they are present along with a whole cocktail of chemicals, some of which could increase the toxicity of neonicotinoids up to 1,000 times.

“The UK government must act. Until now, the government’s main solution to the bee crisis is to pay farmers a small chunk of the £900 million Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) money, available to help wildlife, to create flower-rich habitat next to crops. Yet this research suggests that these supposedly safe havens for bees are actually potentially dangerous chemical cocktail bars.

“These flower margins must be protected with a full ban on neonicotinoids; the current EU ban is only partial, and in the UK mainly applies to just one crop – oilseed rape. Neonicotinoids are still used on other crops, for example on over 25% of all UK cereals. Neonicotinoids will be poisoning the field margins of many of these crops.

“We also want to see the government finally setting out a strategy for reducing pesticide use in farmland – as is required by EU law. This has always been the gaping hole in the government’s strategy to save our bees.”