When agriculture makes it onto the BBC 10 o’clock news, it’s a sure sign something big is afoot. And it was. Newspaper headlines went a step further and invariably linked ‘neonicotinoids’ to ‘killing bees’. All strength to the arm of those calling for a ban, already the neonicotinoids have been tried by a kangaroo court and judged guilty as charged.
If you haven’t read the research paper ‘Country-specific effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on honey bees and wild bees, published in the June edition of the journal Science, then you need to. And when you have, I think you’ll agree that it’s hard to understand how this piece of research has led to the dramatic headlines. Possibly the way it was presented to the press by the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology may well have something to do with it.
This paper is important because it is a pan-European study and the first to take place on a field scale. In many ways, it adds to the knowledge base around the effects of the neonicotinoids on bee populations, and much of what the paper finds isn’t negative at all. Unsurprisingly this isn’t considered news worthy and has gone largely unreported.
The part of the research that looked at honey bees found ‘no differences’ between bees foraging on treated and untreated crops in 238 of the 258 analyses that were undertaken. In seven colonies, there were positive effects on the bees where the bees were foraging on the neonicotinoid treated OSR, and in only nine colonies were negative effects reported. The remaining four were unreported due to the poor quality of the data.
Curiously the authors made no attempt to explain the positive effects, in fact they were glossed over in the press melée.
The interpretation of the results becomes even foggier when it comes to the statistical analysis used in the wild bee studies. This looked at neonicotinoid residues in nests and its correlation to queen production in bumble bees or reproductive cell production in solitary bees.
The authors found neonicotinoid exposure resulted in increased colony size for bumble bees in Germany, though the opposite applied in both the UK and Hungary.
The issue here is in the way these effects were reported in the Science paper – for some reason the authors chose to aggregate the data from all three countries rather than look at each country, in its own-right. After all, statistics are like bikinis – what they reveal is suggestive, what they conceal is vital.
And this is where my warning bells begin to ring and I thank my Agric lecturers at Wye College for drumming into us that we needed to understand statistics – as painful as it was at the time. If you’re interested, then take a look at Adrian Little’s blog (http://cropscience.bayer.co.uk/news-and-opinion/categories/farming-matters-blog/) where he conducts a country-specific analysis of the research data, which reveals a very different picture to the one published.
In the paper, the authors say that ‘the country-specific responses of honey and bumble bees strongly suggest that the effects of neonicotinoids are a product of inter-acting factors’. Levels of disease were higher in UK and Hungarian hives and queens were also smaller than in Germany. These ‘other’ factors perhaps need to be looked into before any meaningful conclusions can be drawn from the data.
But it’s a peer-reviewed paper, so it must be right? Not necessarily. Science is all a matter of opinion and finding evidence to support it. The science in this paper isn’t bad but the interpretation may be flawed by the choice of statistical analyses.
The trouble with the world we live in is that headlines become fact, even if they have no real substance. So it’s important to find out the proper facts and be prepared to engage with those who haven’t learned that you can’t believe everything you read – no disrespect to fellow journalists intended.
Right now we need to stick up for the neonicotinoids – personally I’m not willing to send them to the gallows on the evidence that’s been presented. I’d prefer a world where we’re using less rather than more pyrethroids. Don’t they actually kill some of our insect good-guys?