Opinion | What honey can tell us

Winnie the Pooh said, “The only reason for being a bee is to make honey. And the only reason for making honey is so I can eat it”, but indeed in the wider scheme of things most of our food depends on the pollination services that the worker bees offer to us as they buzz about their business of collecting nectar from the flowers to bring back to the hive to make honey. Famine would be widespread without such pollinators, and any decline in bee numbers is therefore of major concern.   

In the Northern Hemisphere beehives have been increasingly showing evidence of Colony Collapse Disorder where the worker bees, the foragers who bring the nectar and pollen to the hive, disappear leaving the queen and the juvenile immature bees without enough food for survival. There is no consensus as to the cause of CCD but a new class of insecticides, the neonicotinoids, are receiving much attention. These are the most widely used class of insecticides since pest insects have evolved resistance to traditional insecticides.

Scientific studies are underway across the world to categorise the levels of these chemicals that can be safely used and, at the same time, legislators are banning or restricting the use of some or all of this family of insecticides. Bans or temporary bans exist across Europe but not in the UK or Australia.

A recent study on 198 honey samples from across the world reported neonicotinoids in three quarters of all samples, although at levels below the maximum residue level authorised for human consumption.

Efficient food production relies on strong crop growth, which depends on keeping insect pests to a minimum but if the insecticides used also affect the bees, then pollination will be affected and food production will plummet.

Professor Tim Roberts is the director of the Tom Farrell Institute for the Environment at the University of Newcastle