Bees and wasps, let's be honest, have some annoying habits. They love to prowl our sugary drinks with their sting at the ready when we try to push them away.
However, these flying insects perform invaluable functions in ecosystems. They pollinate flowers, thus helping plants reproduce. These plants include vital food crops from wheat to rice to corn. In fact, small pollinators like bees are key parts of food security across the planet, including Europe, helping to pollinate three-quarters of all vital crops globally.
However, bees have fallen into difficult times as a result of an existential threat: pesticides. Neonicotinoid pesticides pose a serious risk to wild bees and honey bees, whose populations have plummeted across the continent, raising fears that wild bees will go extinct unless decisive action is taken.
According to peer-reviewed studies from the European Food Safety Authority, the toxic content of commonly used insecticides is deadly not only for pests but also for insects that perform invaluable ecological functions. That shouldn't surprise us, of course. Toxins do not discriminate between unwanted and useful species.
Industry lobbyists and crop chemical companies have disputed the idea that it is pesticides that have caused bee populations to freefall in Europe and elsewhere. Instead, they have argued that the trend has been caused by a number of factors and that if certain pesticides were banned within the EU, farmers on the continent would suffer. "Farmers need access to a wide range of tools to protect their crops," including pesticides, said Graeme Taylor of the European Crop Protection Association last year.
However, the European Union has decided to ban all neonicotinoid-containing insecticides after a previous partial moratorium, passed in 2013, which restricted the use of neonicotinoids to certain crops. Now the use of the toxins is not allowed within the EU. "The health of bees remains of utmost importance, as it relates to biodiversity, food production and the environment," said Vytenis Andriukaitis, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety.
However, it's not just bees that have been through tough times in Europe and much of the rest of the world. According to a group of entomologists who have been monitoring insect populations in Germany's nature reserves, an "insect Armageddon" is underway.
In the last 27 years, the number of insects has plummeted by an astonishing 75%, largely as a result of overuse of insecticides. The increasing absence of insects from Europe's meadows and forests is an alarming development for biodiversity in several ways. It is estimated that around 80% of wild plants depend on insects for pollination, while 60% of wild birds feed on insects.
"The whole food production system, a form of farming, which is completely dependent on throwing away the buckets of chemicals is not sustainable," warns Dave Goulson, a professor of biology in the UK.
Half a century ago, destructive pesticides like DDT were banned by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, an environmentalism book published in 1962 that documented the ravages of the widespread use of nature-forged insecticides in the United States. However, the lessons of the past have been largely forgotten, Goulson argues.
"We banned a lot of pesticides, but then we introduced new ones to replace them, many of which we eventually banned," he told an Australian media outlet. "So we introduced even more, including neonicotinoids, and after 20 years of use, we are beginning to realize that they, too, are damaging the environment."