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18 May 2017updated 07 Jun 2017 8:30pm

Beesic Instinct: Labour wants to protect the bees from Brexit

Leaving the EU could weaken protections, which is a shame because politicans have a lot to learn from hive behaviour

By India Bourke

No more bumbling around from Labour: the Party is now firmly pro-Bee. Their new manifesto says they would ban the controversial pesticides, known as neonicotinoids or “neonics”, from the UK:

The pledge is not just great news for bees, whose nervous systems are attacked by the chemicals, but for admirers of bees’ elegant political decision making too. In fact, if our politics was more bee-like perhaps it would bug us less.

Bees, it turns out, are skilled in the political arts. When honey bees have to move to a new hive they send “scouts” to check out the options – a cosy crevice in your shed perhaps. The scouts then relay their findings to their comrades with a “waggle dance” up the honeycomb walls. Their sequence of steps indicates a site’s location, and if their opinion of your shed is not so hot, they’ll only bother to repeat their dance a couple of times. If they love it, they can dance a few hundred.

The longer a bee dances, the larger her audience grows. Her fellow scout bees can then follow the directions and visit the venue themselves. On their return, they perform their opinion for others. Eventually a hive should end up with a critical mass of the creatures all dancing for the same place. At that point, the entire hive takes flight to its new, democratically elected, home. Talk about waxing lyrical. 

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Now just think about what such a system could do for British politics? Leaving aside the joyful prospect of our Right-Honourables jigging their way through parliament, would bees be vague about what kind of EU relationship they were choosing? No way. Would they have been swayed by dodgy facts? Nope. 

But, wait, what’s that I hear you say? – it’s not real democracy if only the scout bees get a vote! Fair point. But in that respect, neither is our own: just take 16 year-olds or foreign nationals. 

Plus the sad truth is that leaving the EU is putting the UK’s capacity for strong, scientific decision making in doubt – not least over which pesticides are safe to use.

At present, The European Food Saftey Authority evaluates the safety of the substances proposed in new “plant protection products” and shares the results among the member states. In 2013, its findings led the European Commission to restrict the use of three key neonictides which the EFSA warned posed a “high acute risk” to honey bee health. This science has recently been reviewed by the EFSA and may see the restrictions extended to a complete ban

In the event of Brexit, the UK will have to decide on whether or not to maintain, extend or reduce EU rulings on pesticides. Labour’s call for prohbiition is in line with calls from seventeen of the UK’s leading environment and conservation groups (the Green Party already pledged to ban neonoictinoids in their 2015 campaign). But while the Conservative government says it will take a “risk based” approach to the matter, it is under pressure from pesticide and farming groups to relax present regulation. In 2013 it also voted against the EU’s partial ban.

The even wider question, however, is how Britain will conduct scientific reviews and licensing in future. Dave Timms, senior policy campaigner for Friends of the Earth, is concerned about what our future relationship to the EFSA’s review process will be: “You’ve got so many chemicals coming up for review all the time that member states take it in turn to be rapporteurs – and that process of sharing the science, sharing the effort, could be lost if we leave.”

Defra has highlighted the problem of repatriating such decisions to the UK: “some areas (such as chemicals or ozone-depleting substances) might present more challenges than others because they are currently delivered by EU agencies, systems or resources,” it said in evidence presented for a recent government report.

The need for decisions based on shared and transparent scientific evidence has thus arguably never been greater. Otherwise we risk a situation in which, as Dr Elli Leadbeater of Royal Holloway told the NS, “evolution seems to have found a better solution than we have.”