On Exposing Chemical Industry Crimes

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Professor Dave Goulson of Sussex University comes to you from Slow Food International.  On May 20, Slow Food is launching a brand-new Community, Slow Bees! Slow Bees mission is to promote Seasonal, Local and Organic food for all pollinators.  






Terry: Welcome to Pollinators and Power.  I'm Terry Oxford and I’m a Pollinator Advocate in San Francisco, California.  Today's podcast of Professor Dave Goulson of Sussex University comes to you from Slow Food International.  On May 20, Slow Food is launching a brand-new Community, Slow Bees! Slow Bees mission is to promote Seasonal, Local and Organic food for all pollinators.  

Today I'm interviewing Professor Dave Goulson, of University of Sussex, who received his Bachelor’s Degree in Biology from Oxford University.  He followed that up with a doctorate on Butterfly Ecology at Oxford Brookes University and lectured in Biology for 11 years at the University of Southampton, where he began to study bumblebees in earnest.  Professor Goulson is author of more than 290 scientific articles in the ecology and conservation of bumblebees and other insects. He has also published many books of what I consider ‘bibles’ of native pollinators, namely ‘Bumblebees, Their Behavior, Ecology and Conservation’ from Oxford University Press.  His bestseller, ‘A Sting in the Tale’ in 2014, ‘A Buzz in the Meadow’, ‘Bee Quest’ in 2017 and this year ‘The Garden Jungle,’ which I would like to delve into later. Professor Goulson founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006, a charity, which has grown to over 12,000 members. And in 2015 he was named number 8th of 50 of the most influential people in conservation by BBC Wildlife Magazine.  Welcome Professor Goulson. Thank you for speaking with me, Slow Bees and Slow Food International today. May I call you Dave?

Dave:  Of course, yes. My pleasure to be here.

Terry:  Let’s start with some good news because when we talk about pollinators, the news is pretty grim and people really can't hear very much of that.  So, I’ve heard you have some land that you’re working on to support bees. Can you tell us some happy news about how they're responding?

Dave:  Yeah, so a few years ago now, 15 years ago, I bought a little farm in France in the middle of nowhere, which up until that time had been used for arable crops and there wasn't really much wildlife particularly there.  And I’ve been slowly turning the whole lot into basically a wild flower meadow, which is frustratingly slow at times but every year a few more flowers arrive and a few more bees arrive and it's really beautiful now. It’s a great place to go and relax and listen to the bees and see the butterflies flapping about and you’ve done, you know, a little thing to make the world a bit better.

Terry:  It sounds like an oasis.  Sounds like there is home and habitat for all sorts of different things.

Dave:  Yeah, I mean it is kind of sad that, you know, a lot of farmland these days is so inhospitable to insect life.  But it can be reversed, you know, it doesn’t have to be that way and it's amazing how quickly things can recover if we just stop, you know, stop messing things up, stop spraying pesticides, stop ploughing it up every year.  You know, insects are pretty resilient and thankfully not many have gone extinct yet. So, the potential is there for them to recover well, we just need to give them a chance.

Terry: That's a great message, that's really good news.  I agree. That's my personal experience here in California too. A friend of mine started a farm just a couple of years ago and I go up there for sanity because there are so many insects.  So, it's really a joy to see that if you do plant it, they will come.

Dave:  Yeah. Kevin Costner, got it right.

Terry:  So, a lot of people think or hear the word bee and they just think of honeybees automatically.  Can you please define the difference between our commercially managed European honeybee and what are native bees and pollinators?

Dave:  Yeah, of course. So, there are a great number of species of bee in the world and, yeah many people have no idea at all as you say. I think quite a lot of people mistakenly believe there is just one species of bee and it lives in a hive and it makes honey and it pollinates everything.  But actually it couldn’t be much further from the truth. There are 20,000 species of bee, in which the domestic honeybee is just one. They’re really diverse, they live all over the world, they come in all of colors and shapes, and sizes and they all tend to – they’re all pollinators. Between them they deliver the majority of crop pollination and wildflower pollination, this is the wild bees rather than the honeybees.  But it goes beyond bees, which is something else that isn't really widely appreciated. There are many, many other insects that are really important pollinators; hover flies and butterflies, and moths and beetles, and wasps and umpteen more. So for example the cacao that gives us chocolate is pollinated by tiny little flies, so if we didn’t have these little flies we wouldn’t have chocolate and how disastrous would that be.

Terry:  Pretty bad.

Dave:  I’d say it would, it would be a dire situation.  So, we need to look after all of these insects ideally.  Honeybees, you know, we shouldn’t forget about them, they’re really important. They are the single most important pollinator species in the world.  But they’re not even a native species of course in the Americas. And, you know, the pollination done by all of the other pollinators far outstrips that delivered by honeybees for most crops, but not all.

Terry:  Right. Well, and the reason that they’re even commercially managed like they are, is because, you know, during the mid-century, agriculture started becoming more chemical intensive.  Farmers found that there were no native pollinators left because they’d obviously been killed by the poisons. So, the commercially managed migratory beekeeping system that we know here in the US was created because of the loss of the natives.  So, getting back to an ecology where it's safe and where native pollinators, no matter where you are in the world, where your native pollinators are supported is, I think a goal that would be an honorable thing that all humans could work toward, which means organic farming.

Dave:  Yeah, I was just going to add to that, I mean, it's actually an enormously risky strategy to end up in a situation where a farmer’s crop, the classic example being the almonds of California, where the crop is entirely dependent on that importation of countless millions of honeybees.  There's just one species left there that does nearly all of the pollination. If anything goes wrong, if anything happens to that supply of honeybees then, you know, that crop will be wiped out. Naturally most plant species are pollinated by dozens of different pollinators and if something happens to one of them, somebody else will step in, the plant will still produce seed.  But we’ve engineered this very unnatural situation where we’ve wiped out most of the native pollinators, as you say. And that’s really dangerous, you know, because we do need these pollinated crops. We couldn't feed the seven billion people in the world without adequate crop pollination and we are absolutely crazy if we rely on just one species to do that.

Terry: Right.  And that's how it's become! We’re right there. It just seems like the end is almost here in California. It looks like it's the end game because they're just not surviving. The honeybees that are being brought in are still being exposed to all sorts of chemicals when they're released off the trucks.  And then they don't do well and I think this year is reported to be one of the worst years. They've managed to manipulate the hive (numbers) and the bees enough to kind of hobble it (the system) along but there is no good end in sight. And they're exposed to other diseases, problems and issues and then starvation, too! Because once the almond trees have stopped producing flowers, what do they do?

Dave:  Yeah, you’ve got the sort of desolate landscape, it's pretty sad. I also was astonished to read, I mean after all the concern about the state of honeybee health, particularly in the Americas with your migratory beekeeping, which I’m glad to say is a system that we don’t really have in the rest the world.  But there was a recent study that revealed that they’re still spraying insecticides onto the almond during the blossoming period when the honeybees are active!  Well, that’s just insane! And apparently, the farmers have been told that these were bee-safe insecticides which, you know, is an oxymoron if ever there was one. I mean there is no such things as an insecticide that doesn't kill bees but does kill the ‘bad insects’, so to speak.  So, I was astonished just how naïve and stupid we continue to be.

Terry:  Yeah. And it seems like, you know, the clock is ticking. We've got to get to a state of conservation where we’re really looking at the future instead of just looking at short term gain. Those specialty crops are the most unsustainable, it seems.  And people need to wake up to how important this is and that business as usual is not appropriate anymore. It’s just not appropriate. Biomass would be considered, and correct me, would be considered almost the krill in the ocean?

Dave:  Yeah. I mean it's a similar kind of thing, you know, and actually there's an obvious parallel which is the krill are the base of the food chain in the ocean.  And of course, insects are that on land. We don't eat them but we're in a small minority in that respect.  Most bird species, bats, lizards, frogs and so on, and many fresh water fish, all eat insects.  So, if the insects are disappearing, that's all the food disappearing for the beautiful birds and other animals that we really want. Most people don’t care much about insects themselves but they do care about pretty birds, and so on.  And if that's the case, then again, they should be deeply concerned about what's happening because it's basically wiping out the whole food web if we lose the insects.

Terry:  Right. And I think you’ve made a really good point that we can appreciate what is pretty to our eye.  But I think that's really telling about how humans think about wildlife and insects. That it's separate from us because it looks different from us.  And I think that’s an evolution that humans might be ready to leap forward with right now. A conscious evolution that ‘The Other’, that which is unfamiliar to us, is really most important.  And I love that parallel with native bees because the European honeybee gets all the press but the reality is, that the natives, no matter where you are, are the important species, the indicator species. And that's why I love your books so much.  I think they’re really important. You wrote something on your blog called Pesticides in Bee Friendly Flowers.  Can you explain what Systemics are and how they travel through the plant and then how the poison is dispersed to a pollinators food?  So, the Systemics again are Neonics (Neonicotinoids), they're Fungicides, they can be Herbicides.

Dave:  Yeah, sure.  So, I got kind of involved in studying pesticides relatively recently in my career.  I guess it was about nine years ago when this controversy over neonicotinoids, neonics for short, blew up.  And they're basically a fairly new generation of insecticides that have been around since the mid-1990s. And it became very popular with farmers because they're very toxic to insect pests and they’re systemic so the majority of the use of these chemicals is a seed dressing, particularly in Europe. I'm not sure is it’s quite the same in the US but I think it largely is.  And so, farmers would just buy and still do buy their seeds coated in these insecticides. And the idea is that farmers simply sow the seeds and the chemical is water soluble and it dissolves in the damp soil, goes into the soiled water and the little seedling crop sucks up the chemical and it goes to all the parts of the crop and makes it toxic to insect pest. So, the farmer basically doesn't do anything apart from buy the seed and sow it into the ground. And you can see why that sounds like a pretty attractive sort of simple system of pest control to the farmer.  And is often billed as providing really good targeting, much better than spraying insecticides from the back of a boom on a tractor to where they can blow around in the wind, or whatever.

And so they took off and we’ve reached a point where almost every arable crop in the developed world was being treated with these chemicals.  But as you know, we're all now aware, it turned out that it actually wasn't quite as simple as that and that these chemicals were nowhere near as well-targeted as we thought.  So, part of the problem, well there's enough… where do I start, there's so many problems! And the first issue that was flagged up was because they're systemic they get all the parts of the crop.  If it's a flowering crop they go into the nectar and the pollen and so if you grow sunflowers or corn, or oilseed rape canola, you guys call it or anything else that flowers and needs pollinating. And when the bees come to visit it they’re getting a dose of insecticide and these are neurotoxins that are astonishingly poisonous to all insect life.  So, to try and illustrate that the toxicity of insecticides is usually measured by, I think called the LD50 that stands for the lethal dose that kills 50% of the test animals, it’s a standard measure. So, for the most commonly used neonicotinoid or the first one that was really popular was a thing called Imidacloprid.

And it takes just four billionths of a gram to deliver an LD50 to a honeybee and which, and you can't visualize four billionths of a gram…your brain can't compute such small amounts.  But to put that in another way that means one teaspoon of Imidacloprid, which is five grams, is enough to kill one and a quarter billion honeybees. And we're applying hundreds of thousands of kilos of this stuff to the landscape. We’re applying enough to kill every bee on the planet thousands of times over.  And we know that they’re being exposed via the nectar and pollen of the crop. But it turns out that it isn't just via the nectar and pollen of flowering crops and the work we did and was one of the first to flag this up. We looked in wildflowers growing on farmland in the field edges and hedgerows and so on. And we found that the nectar and pollen of those was also contaminated with these systemic insecticides.  It turns out that when the farmer sows the seed, the majority of the chemical, about 95% of it in fact isn’t taken up by the crop at all. It's going into soil and the soil water. It can accumulate in the soil, it can leach into streams, it could be taken up by wildflowers growing on farmland just as easily as it's taken up by the crop. And so essentially you end up with the entire landscape being permeated with these phenomenally poisonous neurotoxins.

And so, there was a recent study done by Swiss scientists where they collected honey samples from around the world and screened them for neonics. 75% of them including from remote Pacific Islands and all sort of places where you might not imagine many pesticides were used, 75% of them contained these insecticidal neurotoxins.  Which basically means that the three quarters of the world's bees are routinely being exposed to chemicals designed to kill insects. And so, you know, we shouldn't really be surprised that the honeybees are suffering from health problems. And if honeybees are being exposed it means that every other pollinator is also being exposed to these same chemicals.  So, you know, I mean it's a catastrophe and it’s enormously frustrating because we keep seeing new generations of pesticides come on to the market and were told that they’re safe. And it often takes 20 or 30 years for us to realize they're not safe and for the scientific evidence to accumulate. And then eventually there are calls for them to be banned. And in the case of the neonics, Europe has been proactive and has banned most of them now but the rest of the world will probably take another 10 or 20 years to realize how harmful they are.  And so, in the US of course, your farmers are still happily using them in huge quantities, sadly. Eventually I'm sure it will be banned but in the meantime some other chemical will have replaced them and it will turn out to be just as bad down the line, I'm sure.

Depressing stuff. So you mentioned this other work we did on ornamental flowers. So if you go to a garden center in the UK or anywhere in Europe, I don’t know whether this also happens in the States, but garden centers have flagged up the plants that are good for pollinators, that are good for wild bees, bumblebees, butterflies and so on.  They often have a picture of a bee on the label of the plant. And it's really popular these days. Lots of people want to look after wildlife. They’ve become aware of the problems bees are facing so when they go to the gardens center they think, "Oh, that's great I'll buy a lavender because that's good for the bees." We bought a whole load of “bee friendly” plants, when I say bee friendly with exclamation marks which you can't see because this is radio but, we bought some of these plants from a whole bunch of different retailers and screened them and I'm sure you can guess where this is going.  They're all full of pesticides. A whole cocktail of pesticides. 70% of them contained these neonicotinoids, quite a few of them contained other insecticides like Pyrethroids, some of them had Organophosphates which are pretty nasty.  Almost all of them had fungicides in them which can act synergistically with insecticides.  So basically people are buying plants, being mis-sold them. They’re buying plants with the best of intentions thinking they're going to bring them home and provide food for pollinators and actually they're accidentally poisoning them.  And I think that's completely outrageous. I would be absolutely willing to bet my last dollar that the situation is at least as bad in the United States as it is here sadly.

Terry:  I think it's a little bit worse here in the US because we don't have the same scientific principles that the EU has. You have the precautionary principle which, before a product or a poison can come on the market has to prove that it's safe for humans and nature.  But what's happened here is business interests come first and then the product has to be proven unsafe by people or organizations or whatever, and so by the time anybody is talking about a product with any sort of effectiveness, the product has been on the market for 15 years.

Dave:  To be honest, I think the EU is better but not that much better, you know, it didn’t stop us allowing neonics to come on to the market and many of the other same chemicals.  We might be a little bit faster to get rid of them but, you know, we've only just banned neonics 24 years after they were introduced. After enormous amounts of environmental harm were done in the meantime. And the EU regulatory process is also subject to pressure from the Agrochemical industry.  They lobby, they manipulate, they do their best to get their products on to the market and keep them there as long as they can and, you know, obviously with the current administration in the States that's a real open door for them. But it’s not that much better in Europe, sadly, I wish it was.

Terry:  Is that the case for France as well?  Any good news?

Dave:  Yeah, so France…European countries have the option to act unilaterally if they wish to.  And France is leading the way there, so they – the European Union banned three neonics, the most toxic ones and the most widely used ones but it didn’t ban all of them.  And France has unilaterally banned the whole lot and has also done something really interesting recently which has banned all pesticides for use in gardens and in city areas, and parks and so on. Which is brilliant because, you know, I and many others have said for years that there is no need or place for pesticides in our gardens where our children play, in the parks and playgrounds and so on.  You know, you could argue that pesticides – some people would argue that pesticides are necessary in farming. I would be happy to argue about that but there is no strong argument that says we need pesticides in our gardens, none at all. And I think it's absolutely brilliant that France have gone ahead and done that. They're not actually the first, I mean some individuals, cities all dotted around the world have this some time ago.  So, for example Toronto banned pesticides some years ago and, you know, Toronto is still standing and hasn’t been overrun with weeds and pests or whatever. It looks like any other city!

Terry:  Right.

Dave:  And then we absolutely don't need these pesticides in, you know, to be available in supermarkets for people to just go and buy for themselves and spray them around their gardens without any training or protective gear.  Probably without bothering to read the label half of the time. Its nuts and so yeah, you know, it would be fantastic if the rest of the world would follow France on that one but I suspect that it won’t happen. But in my dream world it would.

Terry:  So I don't know if you can speak to this through personal experience or through your own research but there was a study by Friends of the Earth just a few years ago. They studied flowering ornamental trees in the Bay Area of San Francisco which is where I am.  And the ranges (of Imidacloprid) that they found in the trees was 24 parts per billion, 44 parts per billion and 860 parts per billion in one Crepe Myrtle.  So, because flowering ornamental trees for a city pollinator advocate, are the most important thing because I don’t have meadows, there's never going to be opportunity for meadows in San Francisco. But what my meadows are, are flowering trees because they're – if you look down on the top of them from a building you can stand and look down and you can see a carpet of flowers! That's a meadow for a bee or a bird!  So, trees are everything and so that kind of landscape industry product, flowering ornamental trees, is something that's not even being looked at yet and I'm terrified of that. Do you have any thoughts about trees or any studies?

Dave:  So this not something I know so much about because thankfully it is not normal practice as far as I'm aware to inject ornamental trees in Europe with neonics, thank God.  But I'm well aware that it’s been going on for many years in North America. Nobody has really looked in any detail how long they last in trees but I do know for example there was work done on the use of neonics to protect grape vines against pests where a single treatment was adequate to keep the vines protected for four years.  And so, you know, clearly they last for multiple years once they’re into a woody plant like a tree. And if there's a really big dose gone in there and it sounds as if at least one of those poor trees was absolutely saturated with this stuff then it probably be decades before, you know, it will dissipate but it will take a long time.  It will be many years. Nobody can tell you exactly how many and it will probably vary by plant species and depending on which neonic and so on, we don’t know.

But you’re absolutely right, you know, trees are really important forage for many species of bee and not least just because of the volume of flowers that the tree can provide, you know. I often advocate people putting in flowering trees in their gardens, even small trees. Because the amount of flowers that can provide compared to, you know, herbaceous low growing plants is usually much greater because it's kind of a three dimensional structure covered in flowers.  And so, you know, yeah it's potentially a really horrific thought to imagine that, you know, most perhaps or even some of the trees in your urban areas are actually kind of death traps for bees. You know, you see it in so many ways where if there are a few dandelions trying to poke their heads up between the cracks in the pavement, they get sprayed off with herbicides. And I don’t know whether you have this problem in the US but in the UK people are always complaining about moles, you know, making mole-hills which they think are unsightly on their lawns so they call in someone to slaughter all the moles and its just like, "Can we not just be a little more tolerant of the rest of the life on the planet?”. You know, this kind of just stamping our foot on anything that inconveniences us in the slightest is just a sort of childish and a depressing response that we really need to grow away from somehow but I don't know how we persuade people.

Terry:  Yeah. Well let's do a good news break.  So, the good news is that Slow Food International has launched a new community called Slow Bees and this podcast is going to be aired on the Slow Food International sites and their social media outlets to help people understand that it's just not about honey, it’s not all about honeybees, that even though we are a group of largely international bee keepers, we’re also pollinator advocates.  And we want people to know that the only way to really help pollinators is to makes sure that their nectar and pollen, that's carbohydrates and protein, are nutritious, diverse and that they have not been treated with systemic poisons like pesticides or fungicides or all the other cocktail that you were speaking about. And we're getting our members to take responsibility for planting pollinator food for all pollinators wherever you live and wherever you place a hive.  So we've hash tagged #onetreeforahive and we’re encouraging bee keepers to take responsibility and support their animals with good, clean food. But also to include everything else, the birds, the earthworms…Everything! It's got to be organic and biodynamic otherwise it's just not going to work. So, I'm excited that they've launched – that Slow Food International has adopted Slow Bees and that it's going to include all pollinators. Which is why we wanted to speak with you, Dave Goulson, being a hero of the pollinators, I'm sure you've got an amazing cape.

Dave:  Yeah, well yellow and black stripes.  I do actually – I don't have a cape but I do have a bee outfit.

Terry:  You do?

Dave:  And I wear it on special occasions, it’s quite warm but…

Terry:  So what are you working on next, your book. Tell us about that?  Has it been published yet?

Dave:  The new book is out in the UK in July, it's already out in Germany actually.  The Germans were very proactive in getting it translated but yeah, I'm pretty excited about that.  I'm really hoping to engage with gardeners and persuade them to, you know, tread more gently, to forget about the perfect kind of croquet lawn approach to managing their lawn and let it grow and let wildflowers grow in it.  And not use pesticides and all the things that we've been talking about because I really think, you know, the gardens are great places for us to reconnect with nature.  They have the potential to be fantastically biodiverse to support lots of wildlife. Not just bees but lots of other things besides. And there's a lot of them, you know, and obviously there are a lot of people in the world, and just in the UK which, you know, a tiny little country really.  We've got about half a million hectares of gardens so there's a big win there potentially if I can win over enough gardeners to get them to grow more wildflowers and generally just subtlety change what they're doing. To be a bit more relaxed and let nature do its thing. And then, you know, if we could change from seeing our gardens as these kind of formal tidy places to a more relaxed kind of mini nature reserves then there's the potential for urban areas to become this huge network of nature reserves where bees and butterflies, and flowers can thrive and, you know, perhaps I'm living in a dream world again I don't know.

Terry:  No, I think it's wonderful, I don’t – well I share your dream but, no I think it's possible that there can be oasis everywhere!  Each yard is an oasis, each tree, street trees are an oasis.

Dave:  Yeah, and if we – and there's also parks and the urban green spaces are owned by the local council and so if we could get those, you know, made more wildlife friendly.  If every park had a meadow area and more trees, flowering trees planted and maybe a pond for the aquatic creatures and, you know, just trying to invite nature into our towns and cities.

Terry:  All right.  Well, you're wonderful.  Thank you so, so much for speaking with us and we’re just grateful that you’re there and that you’re publishing like you are and sharing the message.

Dave:  No, it's a pleasure and keep up the great work, you know, the whole Slow Bee thing sounds fantastic and obviously happy to help anywhere I can.

Terry:  To hear the full conversation with Dave Goulson, please visit urbanbeesanfrancisco.com.  I'm Terry Oxford and this in Pollinators and Power. Thanks for listening.