Dave Goulson.
Dave Goulson.

Bumblebee biologist Dave Goulson might be the pesticide industry’s worst enemy — and therefore a bee’s best friend. A professor at Scotland’s University of Stirling, he was part of the team whose 2012 Science paper called out the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides, which pose a considerable threat to fauna large and small. They’ve proven especially lethal to bees.

Exposure to the chemicals reduces the production of queen bees and thus reduces a colony’s chances of surviving the winter (queens are the only bees alive in that season, and they birth a new team of workers when spring arrives). Bumblebees, like honeybees, are critically important to modern agriculture, pollinating everything from canola to watermelon, but their population throughout most of the world has plummeted in recent years.

The ideas pollinated by Goulson and other neonicotinoid researchers recently bore fruit, in the form of a two-year partial ban on the pesticides by the European Union. Having recently released A Sting in the Tale, an autobiographical history of his own research, Goulson spoke with Grist about nature writing, the implications of the E.U. ban, and why farmers keep using pesticides despite the lack of evidence in their favor.

Q. You spend much of the book discussing how you became a researcher, and various adventures you’ve undergone in the name of science. Why write a work of half-memoir, half-biology in the first place?

A. In Britain, scientists are spectacularly poorly understood. People — even our own students at university — don’t always know how science really happens, or what academic work actually looks like. So I tried to explain what I do.

Q. And you discuss your failed experiments as well! I don’t see that in many science books.

A. Of course, that’s mostly how it goes! People don’t really understand the process of designing experiments, or that you’ll be horribly wrong the first time, perhaps the second and third time as well. I tried to humanize scientists a bit; we’re often seen as these eccentric people wearing white coats and doing dark magic in a lab somewhere, when we’re really just ordinary bumblers like everyone else.

Q. There was a concerted effort by agrochemical companies to stop the E.U.’s neonicotinoid ban, and even the U.K.’s chief scientific adviser came out against it. How did it succeed despite all that?

Goulson's new book, "A Sting in the Tale."
Goulson’s new book, A Sting in the Tale.

A. As far as I can tell, the first major influence was the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) coming out against [neonicotinoids] a few years ago. They were asked by the European Commission to assess the safety of neonicotinoids with regard to bees, and they came to the conclusion, quite clearly, that neonicotinoids posed a whole host of clearly quantified risks. They didn’t come out and say they should be banned, but that was the clear message.

Immediately on the back of that, the European Union proposed a vote, which got a majority, but didn’t have enough support to pass the first time around. For the second vote, Germany changed their minds — quite surprising, considering that they are, well, German — and voted for the ban after having abstained the first time.

The U.K.’s position is interesting, and hard to fathom. When a considerable weight of evidence has mounted up showing that neonicotinoids are capable of harming bees — no absolute proof of harm in the field, but convincing evidence, without any evidence pointing the other way — it’s quite clear that they should be restricted. There’s been some nonsense spouted, in my view, by the government’s chief scientist, Sir Mark Walport. I don’t believe he could have read all the evidence! He’s a busy guy. It’s incredibly unlikely he could have read things in the level of detail that EFSA did. Some people say there’s been influence on him by the agrochemical industry, but the extent of that is hard to determine.

Q. What’s really startling about neonicotinoid research is that, aside from killing bees, it doesn’t seem to improve crop yields especially well.

A. I was amazed when I started digging in to find out what the evidence base was for their use, and more broadly, the evidence base for all pesticides. It’s really very hard to find any published studies! When you look in scientific journals to find out which chemicals give you the biggest yield for the smallest cost, there’s almost nothing. And evidence suggests that neonicotinoids may not have any effect at all on some crops — even crops for which they are very highly used!

That, to me, was a bit of an eye-opener; I’d just been taking it as read that, whether or not they killed bees, pesticides were being used for a very good reason that had to be balanced against environmental risk. But when you question whether they have any use in the first place, that whole set of assumptions starts to collapse.

Q. Where else besides the E.U. might neonicotinoid restrictions have a major impact?

A. The biggest user in the world, by an order of magnitude, is China. They manufacture imidacloprids themselves these days. And this might explain the horror stories that have come out of some parts of China, where they’re having to hand-pollinate their crops now, because they don’t have any bumblebees left alive.

Q. Have governments, or any other parties in the neonicotinoid debate, asked you for advice?

A. I’ve met with DEFRA, which is the U.K. government department responsible for farming. They commissioned their own study recently, basically just to repeat [my team's] bumblebee study in the field. They found exactly one untreated field of canola left in the whole of the U.K., and put some nests next to that, and did the same in two other treated canola fields, and watched how the nests behaved over time.

I was invited to look at the results when they appeared in February — and the study was a complete disaster. The control nests, next to the untreated field, were filled with honey and pollen containing neonicotinoids. Even though the farm they were on hadn’t used neonicotinoids in several years, the bees were able to find enough pesticide-ridden areas that concentrations in some of their nests were higher than in those of bees near the treated fields. So nothing was proven, save that neonicotinoids are pretty pervasive, and that even farmers who don’t use pesticides are going to have trouble using bees on their land.

And despite these results, DEFRA has come out and said that no strong effects of neonicotinoids on bees were shown, despite there not being a control. The whole thing was complete rubbish. I told them so in a meeting later on, but they didn’t listen, unfortunately.

Q. Given the problem with pesticide residues, can we expect the ban to have any effect?

A. Given enough time, the chemicals would disappear, but of course there’s not a total ban, and it’s only set to last two years.

Farmers are banned from using neonicotinoids on crops bees feed upon after December 2013, but they’ll sow treated crops in October 2013, which means the chemicals will persist in growing plants until the summer of 2014, and then the ban will expire in 2015. It will hardly have been in place in real terms.

People will surely campaign for an extension, but they won’t have any more evidence than we do now, since it’s unlikely there will be a dramatic change in bee population when the chemicals remain in the soil. They’re still being used quite extensively on winter wheat [not pollinated by bees], which is the most common agricultural crop in the U.K. and perhaps Europe. So in two years, we might be exactly where we are now.

Q. One of the chief industry arguments against the ban holds that farmers will just revert to older, more dangerous chemicals instead of neonicotinoids. Do you think this is likely to happen?

A. Two things I would say to that. The first is that largely, farmers can’t switch back, because most older pesticides are no longer on the market. They can’t just go to their cabinets and take out the leftover DDT. That argument’s just scare-mongering, really. And the more important general point is that we seem to have forgotten completely about IPM [Integrated Pest Management], which is rather odd, because I was told at university that this was the golden approach to crop management.

IPM came out of California, on the back of an enormous problem: the huge pest invasion that arrived when crop-killing bugs developed immunity [to the older chemicals] and their natural enemies had been killed by pesticides, to the point when it became impossible to grow anything at all. Eventually, everyone came round to the idea that this was the wrong way to handle farming, and that IPM — minimizing pesticide use, monitoring your crops, using controls only when you had a problem, rather than prophylactically — was the solution. That’s what I was taught in the ’80s.

And what’s happened since then? We’re using pesticides almost exclusively, and they’re applied before the farmer can possibly know there’s a pest problem, which is like applying antibiotics prophylactically, and there’s a good reason you’re not allowed to do that. I think the time has come to rethink pesticide use entirely, to return to the idea of minimizing chemicals and managing pests organically. But that’s unlikely to happen, because farmers get advice only from companies that sell pesticides. It’s like selling toothpaste or shampoo; the company runs tests, reports the results, and tells you their chemicals will improve yield by 20 percent. Should you believe them?

Q. Outside the depressing headlines, what’s new in bumblebee research?

A. I’ve mainly been reading the endless plethora of pesticide stuff that’s been coming out. This guy in Dundee, Chris Connolly, has been looking at the effects of neonicotinoids on neural development in bees. They seem to bind to a certain neuroreceptor and hold those receptors open, so that they’re firing all the time.

I hadn’t appreciated the effect they can have even while bees are in the larval stage, and their brains are still growing. You get quite profound alterations if bees are exposed early, and I think this is a really promising direction for future research; if larvae fed with tainted nectar and pollen mature into bees whose behavior is permanently impaired, the effect is much more severe than anyone has otherwise understood.

Q. In your book, you admitted, not without guilt, that your motivation for conservation is in part “selfish” — that you really enjoy sitting in flowery meadows and listening to the buzz of bumblebees all around. Do you think that focusing on the more pleasurable, even selfish, aspects of conservation might increase public support for environmental causes?

A. To me, there are few things better than going to a flowery meadow, or a rainforest, or anywhere full of wildlife you haven’t seen before, where you can stick your nose into things and see what’s there. Maybe I’m a bit extreme, but I think most of us believe people benefit from a connection to the natural world. Many of them don’t know that world well, because they’ve lived in cities their entire lives, but if you can just get them out of the cities and into a meadow for a day, they’d love it!

Really, the only way to conserve what’s left on this planet is to ensure people appreciate it. Complicated arguments for preserving the biosphere or the integrity of the ecosystem are great, but what I try to get across is that nature is amazing, and we’d be insane to let any of it disappear. The question is: “How do we get people to care about all this wonderful stuff before it goes away?”