Insects and Insecticides

Written evidence submitted by Research Councils UK


1. Research Councils UK (RCUK) [1] is a strategic partnership set up to champion the research supported by the seven UK Research Councils. It was established in 2002 to enable the Councils to work together more effectively to enhance the overall impact and effectiveness of their research, training and innovation activities contributing to the delivery of the Government’s objectives for science and innovation.

2. This evidence is submitted by RCUK on behalf of the following Research Councils and represents their independent views.

· Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)

· Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

It does not include or necessarily reflect the views of the Science and Research Group in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and focuses only on those questions or parts of questions relevant to the individual Councils that have contributed to the response.


3. Bees and other insects contribute substantially to the pollination of a wide variety of cultivated and wild plants, and play important roles in both crop production and the maintenance of natural ecosystems. However, there is evidence that populations of managed and wild insect pollinators in the UK and elsewhere have declined significantly over recent years, in the face of threats from changes in the environment including emerging pests and diseases, habitat loss and climate change.

4. The possible effects of insecticides on bees and other beneficial insects should be viewed in a broad context. In the light of specific, high-profile concerns about the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, particular attention has recently focused on honey bees, and to some extent bumblebees. However, any consideration of pollination should take account of the full range of insect pollinators, including all types of bees (wild bumblebees and solitary bees, as well as managed honey bees), hoverflies, butterflies, moths and others. But the current regulatory system for the licensing of pesticides requires the evaluation of their impacts only on honey bees; effects on bumblebees and other non-target insects are not routinely considered and are largely unknown (see also paragraph 10 below).

5. Similarly, concerns about the potential impacts of insecticides should not be considered separately from other possible - and probably inter-related - causes of pollinator decline, such as pathogens and pests, loss of suitable habitats because of changes in land use or farming practices, or the effects of environmental change. Likewise, individual pesticides should not be viewed in isolation; combinations of pesticides, or of pesticides and other chemicals in the environment, also need to be considered.


6. With a common recognition of the importance of bees and other insects in the pollination of food crops and wild plants, and in the light of concerns about widespread declines in their abundance, a consortium of five funders came together in 2009 in the Insect Pollinators Initiative (IPI) [2] . Under the auspices of the Living With Environmental Change Partnership [3] , BBSRC [4] , the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [5] , NERC [6] , the Scottish Government [7] and the Wellcome Trust [8] collectively provided total funding of £9.65M for a joint initiative to support innovative research into the causes and consequences of threats to pollinating insects, and to inform the development of appropriate mitigation strategies.

7. The IPI aims to provide an evidence base to inform the conservation of wild insect pollinators and improve the husbandry of managed species, and thereby reduce current declines and sustain healthy and diverse populations for the future. The purpose of the initiative is to promote and support multidisciplinary research to understand and mitigate biological and environmental factors that adversely affect pollinating insects. The causes of pollinator declines are likely to be multifactorial, involving complex interactions between pollinators, their pests and pathogens and the environment. The funders of the IPI were keen to bring to bear on these issues - alongside the expertise of the established pollinator research community - relevant new skills from other areas at the cutting-edge of biology, such as state-of-the-art genomic technologies and associated informatics, and the latest techniques in epidemiological and ecological modelling.

8. The funders of the IPI invited proposals for research that would address challenges under one or more of the following themes:

· Health and disease: understanding and mitigation of factors that have adverse effects on pollinator health, including pathogens, pests and chemical pollutants, or combinations of them, as well as host genetic or other factors that influence susceptibility or resistance.

· Environmental change: understanding and mitigation of the adverse effects of climate or other environmental change on pollinators, their pests and pathogens, or plant-pollinator interactions.

· Agriculture and land-use change: understanding and mitigation of the effects of changes in agricultural practice or land use that have adverse effects on pollinator abundance, diversity or behaviour, including competition for resources between pollinators.

· Husbandry: understanding to inform the better husbandry of managed pollinators, such as improvements in pest or disease control or enhancement of resistance.

· Tools and data: development and application of new tools for the investigation of pollinator health, including biological reagents, diagnostic techniques, monitoring and surveillance protocols, data analysis and modelling.

The scope of the initiative includes all insect pollinators - both managed and wild - and research at any level of biological organisation from the molecular to the population or ecosystem, as well as interactions with the environment.

9. Details of the nine research projects funded by the IPI are listed in Annex 1, together with information about related RCUK-funded research and research training in Annex 2. The following IPI project is particularly relevant to the specific focus of the present inquiry by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC): "An investigation into the synergistic impact of sub-lethal exposure to industrial chemicals on the learning capacity and performance of bees", led by Dr Chris Connolly (University of Dundee), together with Dr Nigel Raine (Royal Holloway, University of London), Dr Geraldine Wright (Newcastle University) and Professor Neil Millar (University College London). This group of researchers is investigating whether chronic but non-lethal exposure to pesticides (and chemicals used to protect honey bees from infestation by the Varroa mite) affects the navigation and communication skills and foraging behaviour of both honey bees and bumblebees.

10. Dr Raine and colleagues have investigated the effects of two insecticides (of different classes) on the development and growth of bumblebee colonies and the foraging activities of individual bees. Their results were published in a recent (October 2012) Nature paper [9] , accompanied by an independent commentary on the significance of the findings [10] . They highlighted a need for the assessment of risks to non-target insects to consider more fully both multiple species and the complex factors that determine the extent to which particular kinds of insects are exposed to individual and combinations of pesticides (paragraphs 4 and 5 above).


11. Amongst other issues, the EAC intends to examine "what alternative pest-control measures should be used . . . to make UK farming more insect- and bee-friendly". This is also an area in which RCUK is supporting relevant research, particularly through the BBSRC at Rothamsted Research [11] in Hertfordshire. Rothamsted has a substantial track record in the elucidation and use of "chemical ecology" - biologically-based approaches that exploit plants’ natural ("semiochemical") defences against pest attack - applications of which have been particularly successful in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.

12. In the UK, researchers at Rothamsted are currently evaluating - in licensed and carefully monitored field trials - an approach that combines semiochemical knowledge with genetic modification (GM) technology [12] . GM has been used to develop a variety of wheat that produces high levels of aphid "alarm pheromone", an odour produced naturally both by aphids (to alert one another to danger) and by some plants (but not wheat), and which both repels aphids and attracts their natural predators such as ladybirds. (More straightforward mechanical methods of applying the pheromone to crops did not provide effective delivery of the repellent odour.)

13. More broadly, modern approaches to plant breeding, including in some circumstances GM, have the potential to enhance the sustainability of food production through the introduction to commercial crops of genes from related or other plants that confer naturally-occurring resistance to pests or pathogens - thereby offering scope for more environmentally-benign alternatives to the repeated application of pesticides for the management of some widespread and otherwise intractable problems.  Although not concerned with insect pests, relevant examples of such applications of GM include research recently supported by BBSRC on the development of potatoes resistant to nematode worms or "blight" fungus, respectively, at the University of Leeds and the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of East Anglia. The Government’s 2011 Foresight project report [13] - The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability - stressed that no single technology or approach would be sufficient to respond to pressing concerns about global food security; equally, no available technology should be ruled out, and, where appropriate, ways of tackling the challenge should include the use of GM crops.

8 November 2012



Sustainable pollination services for UK crops

Dr Koos Biesmeijer, University of Leeds

Dr Giles Budge, Food and Environment Research Agency

Dr Simon Potts, University of Reading

£1,033k over 36 months

Modelling systems for managing bee disease: the epidemiology of European foulbrood

Dr Giles Budge, Food and Environment Research Agency

Professor Ed Feil, University of Bath

Professor Matt Keeling, University of Warwick

Professor Steven Rushton, University of Newcastle

£750k over 36 months

Investigating the impact of habitat structure on queen and worker bumblebees in the field

Dr Claire Carvell, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology

Professor Andrew Bourke, University of East Anglia

Dr Seirian Sumner, Zoological Society of London

£523k over 36 months

An investigation into the synergistic impact of sub-lethal exposure to industrial chemicals on the learning capacity and performance of bees

Dr Chris Connolly, University of Dundee

Professor Neil Millar, University College London

Dr Nigel Raine, Royal Holloway, University of London

Dr Geraldine Wright, University of Newcastle

£1,458k over 48 months

Linking agriculture and land use change to pollinator populations

Professor Bill Kunin, University of Leeds

Dr Daniel Morton, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology

Professor Jane Memmott, University of Bristol

Professor Simon Potts, University of Reading

Dr Nigel Boatman, Food and Environment Research Agency

£1,394k over 42 months

Urban pollinators: their ecology and conservation

Professor Jane Memmott, University of Bristol

Professor Graham Stone, University of Edinburgh

Dr Koos Biesmeijer, University of Leeds

Professor Simon Potts, University of Reading

£1,239k over 42 months

Impact and mitigation of emergent diseases on major UK insect pollinators

Dr Robert Paxton, Queen’s University Belfast/University of Halle, Germany

Dr Mark Brown, Royal Holloway, University of London

Dr Juliet Osborne, University of Exeter

£1,615k over 36 months

Unravelling the impact of the mite Varroa destructor on the interaction between the honeybee and its viruses

Professor David Evans, University of Warwick

£800k over 36 months

Can bees meet their nutritional needs in the current UK landscape?

Dr Geraldine Wright, University of Newcastle

Dr Phil Stevenson, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

£843k over 36 months



A synthetic & recombinant approach to the production and characterisation of IAPV - an associated agent of honey bee Colony Collapse Disorder

Professor Ian Jones, University of Reading (BBSRC research grant)

£320k over 40 months

Honeybee population dynamics: Integrating the effects of factors within the hive and in the landscape

Dr Juliet Osborne, University of Exeter/Rothamsted Research

£764k over 39 months (BBSRC research grant - Industrial Partnership Award with Syngenta)

The potential of gene-knockdown for controlling Varroa mites

Dr Alan Bowman, University of Aberdeen

£118k over 24 months (BBSRC research grant)

To exchange knowledge between researchers working on pollinating insects across the NERC remit, and stakeholders interested in conserving pollinators

Dr Lynn Dicks, University of Cambridge

£66k over 31 months (NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellowship)

Establishing transatlantic links between groups investigating managed pollinator populations

Dr Giles Budge, Food and Environment Research Agency

£47k over 36 months (BBSRC United States Partnering Award)

Effect of Varroa mite viral diseases on the honeybee (Apis mellifera) recognition system

Professor Roger Butlin, University of Sheffield

£75k over 48 months (BBSRC research training grant - Industrial CASE studentship with a consortium of local beekeeping associations in the East of England)

Surveying the levels of pesticide residues in bees and stored pollen, and their effects on bees

Dr Falko Drijfhout, Keele University

£75k over 48 months (BBSRC research training grant - Industrial CASE studentship with the British Beekeepers’ Association)

Epidemiology of European foulbrood disease of honeybees using molecular tools

Dr Thorunn Helgason, University of York

£75k over 48 months (BBSRC research training grant - Industrial CASE studentship with the British Beekeepers’ Association)



[2] and








[9] Gill, R. J., Ramos-Rodriguez, O. & Raine, N. E. Nature (2012)

[10] Osborne, J. L. Nature (2012)






[14] More information on these grants available at


[15] More information on these grants available at


Prepared 19th November 2012