Dec 8, 2010
Today I am going to be talking with Dr Henk Tennekes, who has
published a book that is very relevant to our understanding of how
systemic insecticides pose a real danger to bees and other insects,
as well as to birds and other wild creatures. And ultimately, of
course, to us, because we too are part of this picture.
Those of you who listen regularly to this podcast and who read my articles will know that my obsession with bees extends deep into the wider natural environment. The lives and habits of bees are entwined with those of flowering plants, with the flora and fauna of the soil that supports them and the birds and other creatures that depend on plants and insects for food.
As beekeepers, we must remind ourselves that it is neither possible nor even desirable to separate one species out from others and to claim to understand it in isolation: everything in nature is interdependent and if we interfere with one part of this intricate structure without looking at the big picture, we risk upsetting delicate and finely-tuned ecosystems that may underpin the very existence of some of the key species on earth.
This is the reason that I have for many years campaigned against the genetic manipulation of crop plants such as maize, oilseed rape and rice. They are examples of plants that are being treated as it they are not a part of the wider environment, in attempts to exploit certain characteristics for profit, without proper consideration being given to the effects such interference is likely to have on other species of plants and animals that will inevitably come into contact with them - and that, of course, includes bees.
This caution must also apply to the use of synthetic chemicals, especially on our food crops. The most controversial family of chemicals that has recently been introduced into agriculture, which many scientists are now blaming for causing mass die-offs of honeybees, is the neonicotinoids. You can tell from their name that they have a similar molecular structure to nicotine - the ingredient in tobacco that makes cigarettes so deadly. And these synthetic chemical forms are very toxic indeed, even in microscopic quantities - in concentrations that even the most powerful analytical equipment available to scientists struggles to detect.
To illustrate just how poisonous the neonicotinoids can be, imagine - if you will - an Olympic-size swimming pool, 50 metres by 25 metres, containing two and a half million litres of water - that's 2,500 metric tonnes - or over half a million UK gallons - or about two thirds of a million US gallons. With that picture in mind, imagine taking just one tablespoon of a neonicotinoid insecticide - just one tablespoon - and adding it to that Olympic-size swimming
Once that tiny amount of chemical has dispersed into the water - and despite the almost unimaginably small quantity of active ingredient in any single drop, that entire swimming pool is now toxic to bees.
That's all it takes - just a few parts per billion of one of these synthetic neonicotinoids - to have measurable effects on bees' ability to navigate. It may not kill them outright, but if they can't find their way home, it may as well have been instantly fatal.
My subject today is Dr Henk Tennekes, who was born in The Netherlands, and after graduating from the Agricultural University of Wageningen in 1974, he performed his Ph.D. work at Shell Research Ltd in the UK. He later worked for 5 years at the Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg, Germany.
The culmination of Dr Tennekes' research was his recent discovery that the way the neonicotinoid insecticides work has much in common with that of chemical carcinogens - cancer-causing agents.
When he realized the dire consequences of environmental pollution with these insecticides, he decided to write a book to warn the general public about an impending environmental catastrophe.
The title of Dr Tennekes book is: The Systemic Insecticides - a Disaster in the Making.
You can read more about his book at http://www.disasterinthemaking.com