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British bees are under threat – and the government is making it worse

British bees are under threat – and the government is making it worse
4 min read

To save our bees, the government must commit to stop harmful pesticides from being used again next year.

Pollinating insects like bees are recognised internationally as being vital for global food production. They help pollinate around two thirds of the world’s crops, including many of our own crops grown in Britain. And yet our precious bees are in serious decline, facing great pressures from pesticides, habitat loss and disease. In the UK we have already lost around 13 species, and another 35 are currently at risk. 

For a government that proclaims itself a champion of the environment, one might expect the Prime Minister to back our bees. But as ever it’s a case of the delivery of his government simply not matching the rhetoric and catchphrases.

Instead of real action urgently needed to reverse the freefall of nature and wildlife, they are intent on allowing back bee-harming pesticides. One of the first actions the government took this year was to approve the use of a banned pesticide, the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam, whose use was banned in the EU in 2018 to protect bee populations.

At the time, then-Environment Secretary Michael Gove agreed, “we cannot afford to put our pollinator populations at risk,” and said these important restrictions would be maintained post-Brexit. 

Fast-forward to 2021, and things have changed. Not only did the government approve an emergency authorisation for the neonicotinoid to be used on British sugar beet this year, it’s been revealed by a Freedom of Information request that this decision was deliberately taken against the advice of the government’s own experts in the Health and Safety Executive. Not a good look for a government hoping to show global leadership on environmental protection and tackling biodiversity loss ahead of Britain hosting COP26 later this year.  

The government’s sweeping failure of our international biodiversity targets has already left behind a lost decade for nature in this country

Labour have been clear that the health of our vital pollinators is non-negotiable and have fought this decision at every turn. We pushed a vote in the Environment Bill against the banned pesticides being used – the government voted it down. I’ve grilled DEFRA Ministers at the dispatch box on the unacceptable secrecy surrounding the expert advice being ignored – they’ve avoided answering the question. 

Luckily, British bees have been saved this year by the cold weather, as pest levels haven’t been high enough for use of the neonicotinoid to be granted. But the threat isn’t over yet, and the government have indicated that it could authorise the use of these bee-harming chemicals again next year. 

This isn’t good enough. The Prime Minister talks a big talk on tackling the climate and ecological emergency we are facing, but the proof is in action - and the government’s sweeping failure of our international biodiversity targets has already left behind a lost decade for nature in this country.  

To save our bees, the government must now commit to not allowing these harmful pesticides to simply be used again next year. Instead they should use the time that has been bought this year to pursue alternative support and methods of pest control for sugar beet farmers.

Labour supports our farmers, and we know it’s been a difficult few years for sugar beet, with many seriously questioning whether they can continue. While the industry faces pressures on many fronts, lifting the ban on bee-harming pesticides is not the solution. The government must come clean about why they secretly ignored their own expert advice, and the process for authorising the use of these potent pesticides must be made more transparent as a matter of urgency, so that future decisions affecting our vital bee populations can be properly understood.

This World Bee Day, in the midst of a climate and ecological emergency, we must demand nothing less for our precious pollinators.  


Daniel Zeichner is the Labour MP for Cambridge and Shadow Minister for Food, Farming and Rural Affairs.

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