Pesticides and pollinators: what does the future hold?

By Aoife O’Rourke, Conservation Officer (SW England)

I know that many of you have been following the neonicotinoid pesticide debate with much interest and concern. You may have noticed in the past two weeks alone a number of strong, compelling research papers have been published, which add to the ever growing pool of evidence proving that pesticides negatively impact bees and other pollinators.

Dr Dara Stanley and her colleagues at Royal Holloway, University of London, published two complimentary papers on the 16th and 18th of November. The first demonstrated that bumblebee learning and memory is impaired by chronic exposure to a neonicotinoid pesticide, while the second established that not only does neonicotinoid pesticide exposure impair learning and memory in bumblebees, it also impairs the crop pollination service bumblebees provide.

This potentially has large implications for both crop yields and wild flower reproduction.

A week later Dr Gilburn and colleagues published a paper illustrating that there is a negative correlation between farmland butterflies and neonicotinoid usage.

The question is where do we go from here? If farmers and growers can no longer use neonicotinoid pesticides, what options do they have for crop protection?

Thankfully there are a range of other options out there for farmers and growers. These options fall under the umbrella term ‘Integrated Pest Management (IPM)’. IPM is a holistic approach to pest and pathogen control, whereby non-chemical methods are used to manage weeds, pests and diseases. This approach helps minimise the cost and environmental damage caused by chemical inputs. IPM can be used everywhere from gardens to agricultural land and even natural areas. The word ‘integrated’ hints at the most important aspect of IPM; instead of using one approach to tackle pests a combination of approaches are used, this is a more sustainable long-term way to manage pests.

So what strategies does IPM employ? Firstly I would like to refer to Anthony McCluskey’s wonderful blog written earlier this year. Anthony details many ways that IPM practices can be practiced in the garden. Interestingly Anthony doesn’t use the term IPM. I wanted to draw attention to this, as many farmers and growers are unfamiliar with this term, however once it is described to them they often recognise that it is something that they have been actively practicing for many years (to greater or lesser degrees depending on the individual). For example crop rotation, a very standard agricultural practice, is an example of IPM. The aim of crop rotation is to control pests and diseases that can build up in the soil over time. By switching to a new crop, many of the pests and diseases that used the last crop as a host die-away.

Good practice IPM involves a combination of the following:

• Biological control (e.g. the use of natural enemies, such as predators to control pests)

• Cultural controls (e.g. reducing suitable pest habitat around a crop)

• Mechanical/physical controls (e.g. traps)

• Chemical control (last resort) (e.g. responsible use of pesticides only when absolutely necessary, delivered using the safest methods possible)

A key element of IPM is monitoring pest levels in your crops. Economic thresholds are available, which provide guidance on when it is time to control pests.

In the coming months myself and my colleagues here at BBCT will be collating information on IPM, in the hope that we will be able to provide people with practical information on how to reduce their pesticide usage, in a drive to protect our bees, water courses and biodiversity in general.

On the 18th of November I was lucky enough to attend a conference run by the Association of Applied Biologists, ‘IPM: the 10 year plan’. This conference brought together the majority of the UK’s experts on IPM, and people such as myself there to learn the practicalities and challenges involved. The talks were varied and I felt every angle was covered. The most interesting talk for me, was presented by the RSPB’s Policy Officer Ellie Crane. Ellie recognised the “barriers that farmers and growers may face when trying to improve their IPM approach, such as time, cost, actual and perceived risks, and necessary knowledge and training”, however she also acknowledged the exciting new advancements that have been made in recent years, such as crop breeding to create pest resistant varieties of crops, biopesticides, and our increasing understanding of the complexity of soil and plant sciences, which ultimately “create a real opportunity for step change in IPM uptake across all sectors”.

So what’s in store for the next 10 years in terms of pest control? I honestly don’t know, however one thing that seems certain from the conference is that given the mounting evidence on the negative impact that pesticides are having on our environment, combined with the evolution of pests diseases to be resistant to pesticides, IPM will no longer be a luxury but a necessity for all growers, and I am confident that together we can make this happen!

For more information on IPM, check out these links (in no particular order):

Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board Board
Voluntary Initiative
Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF)
EU Sustainable use of pesticides
DEFRA UK National Action Plan

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