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Bees find humans guilty

10 May 2013

THE disappearance of our bees is a concern and a mystery. Hive populations have been falling at an astonishing rate in many parts of the world.

The European ban on neonicotinoid pesticides has been welcomed by bee supporters, although the British Government has resisted it, and the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson remains opposed, finding the arguments in favour of the ban unconvincing. It is also claimed that the moratorium will cause problems for farmers who may well resort to older and less effective pesticides.

This is the kind of question where science and emotion can find themselves at war. The emotions are easy. I find the disappearance of the bees deeply troubling. It is as if a part of nature has given up on us - and not just any part of nature. Bees pollinate our crops, our plants, our wildflowers. They are the humble, "busy" workers, on whom so much of our food depends. Their buzzing is the welcome sound of summer.

Beyond this, their presence and what they do indicate that we are part of an organic whole, which is greater than ourselves. We are children of earth, and they help to ground us in this basic fact. If the bees have abandoned us, what is that telling us?

There are, of course, many answers to this question, but the most obvious is that it is our fault. Producers of chemicals, short-sighted farmers, voracious supermarkets, consumers who care for nothing but cheap and plentiful food are all to blame for the demise of the bees.

Their vulnerability judges us, and finds us guilty. Well-meaning Christians can join this chorus, and, of course, it may all be true. If something is not done, we will end up like the Chinese, who send millions of low-paid workers to pollinate the crops by hand, an army of human bee-substitutes, armed with tiny brushes.

But the science is trickier than both our feelings and our fears. Neonicotinoids are not responsible for the fall of all bee populations; they are widely used in Hungary, for example, and there appears to be no problem there.

Nevertheless, a two-year moratorium on their use at least gives us the chance to discover whether some populations can recover in their absence. We should let science, conservation experts, and nature do what they can to save the bees. Nature is deep, and recovers its integrity whether or not that recovery is to our advantage. If we care, our part is to get the facts right and to co-operate.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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