Agromones: 60 years on from DDT, we’re still unleashing forces we don’t property understand — we really do need our heads examined

Country Life's columnist Agromenes wonders how much longer we can go on pumping poorly-understood chemicals into the atmosphere and still expect bees to be able to live as they should — and indeed must.

‘Oh what a wonderful thing to be, a nice obedient busy, busy bee,’ goes Arthur Askey’s famous music-hall song. The trouble is that bees turn out not to be very obedient. Indeed, it seems there are two sorts of honey bees, each of which works entirely differently. Of course, they all have the same job of collecting food for the hive, but they don’t respond to orders, they go their own way.

One lot are creatures of habit. Once they have found a good source of nectar and pollen, they return to it again and again and eschew any attempt at finding fresh opportunities.

The other lot are identical, except for their taste for adventure. These are the discovery bees, which may go occasionally to the recognised source of food, but much more often range far and wide finding new flowers and plants to try out.

This difference in habit seems to be inherited and not taught. As bees search for pollen and nectar, they establish its location and are able to recognise its source by colour and smell.

That’s more than enough for some — they exclude any new knowledge once they’ve got what they want. They then draw the attention of others in the hive to their new-found plenty by doing a little dance, which involves two complete revolutions of their bodies every second.

The other sort, the discovery bees, also dance to attract attention, but not quite so fast so they don’t get as many followers as the others. Still, both kinds work very hard and are liable to get tired, as they will travel as much as six miles to get food. It’s then that they’re less able to take in new information.

“We have unleashed into the atmosphere forces that we don’t properly understand and yet claim are perfectly safe.”

As humans do, they get stressed out, and even the discovery bees can’t innovate. It’s then that the whole colony is in danger, because it relies on the bee’s complicated brain structure to recognise different flower smells that, as the seasons change, they can connect with new sources of food. Without that resilience, bees can’t continue to produce the honey that carries the community through the winter until the first blossoms bring new supplies in spring. Nor can they go on pollinating the plants on which they feed. That’s crucially important if we human beings are to have good harvests.

You would have thought that we’d have gone to great lengths to protect the bee, particularly when we recognise that, all over the world, bee colonies seem threatened. Some of that collapse is clearly the result of disease and beekeepers have worked hard to stem the march of viruses such as CPBV.

However, there is something much more invasive at work, which distorts the delicate mechanisms of the bee’s remarkable brain. That’s the devastating effect of the powerful chemicals that have increasingly been used to protect crops against weeds and pests over the past several decades. We have unleashed into the atmosphere forces that we don’t properly understand and yet claim are perfectly safe.

The latter is what Monsanto said to Rachel Carson when, nearly 60 years ago, in her book Silent Spring, she revealed the damage done by DDT. It’s what big pharmacy companies continue to say today about neonicotinoids, even when the evidence of their disruptive effect has begun to be established. When these chemicals were finally banned in the EU, manufacturers nevertheless continued to promote them in the US and much of the rest of the world.

It is increasingly difficult to understand that, faced with the wonderful complexity of bees that play so important a part in our harvests, we human beings can still imperil the functioning of their brains. We really do need our own heads examined.