This article was written by Lynne Clarke, the Aunt of Energy360’s CEO, who as a teacher and then Anglican Minister, has a lifelong interest in birds and Australia’s native flora. Lynne wrote this article for the Geelong Field Naturalists Club recently to inform the discussion around the demise of insects, which discussion is intensifying, highlighted by a call to action by more than 70 scientists worldwide for immediate action on human stress factors to insects. Phasing out synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, and reductions in greenhouse gas emission are among a series of urgent solutions to reverse what conservationists have called the “unnoticed insect apocalypse”.
Energy360 is developing the market for the outputs of anaerobic digestion as a healthy soil conditioner which will promote biodiversity and hopefully improve the environment for insects, birdlife and humanity.
How do you reap a wonderful crop of blueberries? Last year I thought I had worked out exactly what to do. I had put them in big pots, given them acidic soil, fed and watered them according to direction, and they were thriving. Every twig had masses of flowers and I looked forward to a bumper crop.
As the season progressed, I was very disappointed to see that the majority of flowers dropped without developing fruit. At harvest time I had some nice blueberries, but only a few. What had I done wrong? What had happened?
Eventually it occurred to me that it might be a pollinator problem.
At Christmas I was given an engaging book called A Sting in the Tale, by Dave Goulson. This book told the story of his obsession, from the age of seven, with wildlife, particularly insects, in Shropshire. At that early age he was permitted to plant many insect-attracting species in the garden; build a rockery; and enlarge the pond, stocking it with all manner of creatures. He went on to study entomology and is now Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex. He has made bumblebees his lifetime focus. With many of his PhD students, he has demonstrated how far they travel, how they navigate, and the challenges they face. In the second half of the twentieth century, changed farming practices resulted in their numbers plummeting, and some once-common species almost became extinct in the British Isles.
In 2006 he wondrously (and hilariously!) established the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. The Trust encourages people, particularly children, to provide bee-friendly habitats in the form of wildflower meadows and garden plantings, and to keep and pass on records of sightings. He also recounts the fascinating story of the development of his own wildflower meadow in France, where an ancient farm once operated.
I was delighted to find that Dave Goulson had followed this book with another, A Buzz in the Meadow, which describes many other fascinating insects to be found in his French meadow. But Part Three of this book is devastating.
Despite all his and others’ efforts, including that of the British government which now provides subsidies to farmers to enable them to promote biodiversity on their farms, insect numbers continue to decline.
Many of us remember that in October 2006, in the United States of America, hundreds of thousands of honeybee hives that had seemed perfectly healthy one day were deserted the next. This disaster, called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) spawned an extraordinary body of research (Pollinator Protection 2018). It seems that a multitude of factors were involved. The Varroa mite, which has spread throughout the world (except for Australia) is probably implicated, combined with the fact that American beehives are transported to pollinate huge monocultures, resulting in a poor diet for bees.
What tipped them over the edge was probably the widespread use of neonicotinoids, ‘neonics’ for short—a class of insecticides which are synthetic variants of nicotine and have for some time been suspected of harming bees. They attack the insect’s nerve receptors and brain and are extremely toxic in very small amounts. One gram can give 250 million bees a lethal dose (Goulson 2014, p.197).
Neonics’ advantage to farmers is that they can be applied to (or coat) the seeds. Being systemic, they (the toxins) spread throughout the plant. Any insect that eats the plant dies. Thus, farmers no longer need repeated and expensive sprays, and workers are no longer potentially exposed to nerve agents.
Neonics are also present in the pollen and nectar of plants, but studies by the manufacturers had shown they did not harm bees in such small amounts. These studies took place only over a few days. When CCD occurred, other studies conducted over a season showed that bumblebee nests exposed to neonics declined markedly, and 85% fewer queens were produced. In addition, bees were much more likely to get lost on the way home; to collect far less pollen; and egg-laying was reduced by a third. Neonics was also shown to persist in soil and be soluble in water, having unknown effects on invertebrates that live in the soil as well as on aquatic insects (Goulson 2014, pp.258–279).
Neonic are a class of insecticides and include imidacloprid—the world’s most widely used insecticide (ACS 2014). They have been banned in the European Union and were banned by President Obama. This last decision was reversed by the Trump administration (Neonicotinoid, Wikipedia). They have not been banned in Australia. Bunnings was to remove a pesticide allegedly linked to bee deaths from its shelves at the end of 2018 (Schultz 2018), and when I looked at the Mr Fothergill website it told me that neonicotinoids are not used on any of its seeds. However, I recently found Yates brand insecticides containing neonics in local nurseries.
Last week I read Dave Goulson’s latest book, The Garden Jungle or Gardening to Save the Planet. In his usual engaging and laconic but powerful style, he brings new insecticides to our attention; Acelepryn and Naled (Goulson 2019, pp. 65-69). He predicts that the cycle will continue with new products being declared harmless, and then perhaps a fifteen-year gap until on-the-ground effects are independently and scientifically described. DDT and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring all over again.
In August 2017, an article put out by Allianz Insurance entitled ‘Where does Australia stand on neonicotinoid insecticides?’, and a report by Jess Davis, ABC New Rural, cite that levels of imidacloprid were discovered in the bodies of dead parrots in Western Victoria. It is commonly used in seed treatments.
In April 2018, ABC News Rural featured a segment on the issue. It quoted the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Authority, APVMA, as saying that there is no evidence of declining bee populations in Australia. Conservationist, Dr Megan Halcroft, who researches native pollinating insects, said: ‘Of course there is no evidence. There have been no studies!’ She wants farmers to switch to biological controls like paracitoids, use natural predators and provide as much natural vegetation and habitat as they can around crops to encourage native pollinators.
The ABC Foreign Correspondent program on 15 October 2019, called ‘Insectageddon,’ featured among other significant people, our old friend Dave Goulson speaking very gently about providing quality insect habitat. Yes, the program was about Europe, but the issues don’t seem to be very different here.
My experience is that we don’t have to clean many splattered insects from the windows of our vehicles when we travel on long journeys these days. It seems to me that bird numbers are less than they were years ago, especially the insectivorous ones. Others have said they concur with me on this.
Maybe lack of pollinators is the reason I didn’t have many blueberries last year. But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps the weather was inimical to pollinators that season. I have been watching my blueberries like a hawk since they came into flower a few weeks back. So far, I have seen little flies, bigger ones with shiny blue abdomens, honeybees and hoverflies diligently working them when the weather is fine. Not many, but some. Will they be enough? Broad beans have set, but nowhere near as many as I would expect considering the enormous number of flowers. Yes I do grow borage and alyssum, especially to encourage pollinators.
My impressions are not definitive. But we can all watch out more carefully for these extraordinary little creatures. My attention was drawn to a program called Wild Pollinator Count in which we can all participate.
And we can all check the containers at the back of our sheds and get rid of any neonics (anything with imidacloprid or fipronil in the name, Confidor and others) we may have inadvertently purchased years ago. Many of us have been pursuing Dr Halcroft’s principles in our own small way for years, encouraging indigenous habitat and the little creatures it supports. But I, at least, need to do more.
One more thing; we can make our voices heard—individually and collectively.
Dave Goulson does not want us to despair. Reflecting on his experiences as a seven-year-old he says, ‘I remain to this day amazed at how quickly wildlife appears in a garden if given just a little encouragement’ (Goulson 2013, p.5). ‘We live in a magnificent world of amazing resilience, especially when we properly fulfil our ancient role as its stewards.’
American Chemical Society (ACS) (2014) Imidacloprid. https://bit.ly/32HrOxz
Bryant, S. et. al. (2018) ‘EU ban on neonicotinoids triggers call for a similar ban in Australia to protect bees’ ABC News Rural, April 30. https://ab.co/2rGc2WT
Bumblebee Conservation Trust https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/
Campbell, E. (2019) ‘Insectageddon’ Foreign Correspondent, ABC TV, October 15. https://www.abc.net.au/foreign/episodes/
Davis, J. (2017) ‘Bird deaths linked to common insecticide that is banned in Europe’ ABC News Rural, 10 August. https://ab.co/2QbNZJs
Goulson, D. (2013) A Sting in the Tale, Jonathan Cape.
Goulson, D. (2014) A Buzz in the Meadow, Jonathan Cape.
Goulson, D. (2019) The Garden Jungle or Gardening to Save the Planet, Jonathan Cape.
Primacy (Allianz Insurance) (2017) ‘Where does Australia stand on neonicotinoid insecticides?’, Primacy website. https://bit.ly/2Oa9EPE
Schultz, A. (2018) ‘Bunnings to pull pesticide allegedly linked to bee deaths’ Sydney Morning Herald, 13 January. https://bit.ly/2BKXneH
United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (2018) Pollinator Protection. https://www.epa.gov/pollinator-protection/colony-collapse-disorder
Lynne Clarke Bio
Lynne Clarke’s interest in the natural world dates from early childhood, by bushland and seashore, encouraged by family. Years spent working in Papua New Guinea and Tanzania sharpened this, enhanced by reading. Birdwatching became a particular focus, but she continues to enjoy all aspects of the natural world. She is an active member of the Geelong Field Naturalists Club, for which this article was originally written.