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20 May 2009

"Massive bee loss coincided overwhelmingly with maize sowing"

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Giacomo Michelatti explains how an Italian regional government spearheaded the monitoring of dead bees and gave the government clear recommendations in favour of a suspension of neonicotinoid maize seed coating

The local government of the Piedmont region listened carefully to the beekeepers’ complaints, says Giacomo Michelatti, head of the region’s agrochemical control department. So the Piedmontese authorities, together with their colleagues from Lombardy, spearheaded the monitoring of dead bees and gave the Italian government clear recommendations in favour of a suspension of neonicotinoid maize seed coating.

What prompted the Piedmont region’s decision to press for a ban?
Bee colony collapse syndrome has several causes, among which there is also a debilitating parasite called varroa, but we were struck by the very obvious time coincidence with maize sowing. We made our own recommendations in April and July 2008, and after spending last summer evaluating them, Italy’s Health Department thought the conditions were there for a precautionary suspension and seized the initiative by way of a decree (the quickest way to push a bill through in Italy, Ed.). The suspension has also been extended to the coating of beetroot and potato seeds, even if these crops are irrelevant to bees.

Is the decree going to be renewed later this year?
We don’t know. But the suspected link with massive bee loss is strong. Moreover, these products are not strictly indispensable. Moulds pose a much bigger problem, but maize-damaging beetles, whose larvae attack the roots of many crops, are not even present everywhere. Single-crop systems tend to specialize insects and fungi, but you cannot forbid single-crop systems overnight anyway. Maize sowing is about to begin now. This time there should not be any coated seeds around. We are very curious to see what will happen.

Is it true that neonicotinoids will still be used on groves and are part of a compulsory treatment for vineyards in Italy?
Yes, there is a national decree that establishes the compulsory fight to a vineyard disease called “flavescenza dorata”, which is spread by a small insect called scafoideus titanus. We need to treat vineyards against the vehicle of this pathology, so thiametoxam is sprayed on them towards the end of June. Every year we have to issue between 700 and 800 injunctions to put down struck vineyards in our region.

How is it possible to protect bees in this instance?
There shouldn’t be any problems for bees if treatment is done considerately, by cutting down any spontaneous flowerings under the vineyards, which may attract bees.

But how can bees live side by side with pesticide-drenched orchards?
Beekeepers are very alarmed, but living together is possible. I could quote many cases of a good agreement, whereby beekeepers put their apiaries at the fruit growers’ disposal during pollination, and then take their bees away where there are acacia flowers or to the mountains. Beekeepers have acknowledged that our department has done a lot to promote the correct use of agrochemical products.

What about the place of neonicotinoids on the toxicity scale for humans?
They are the latest generation products and have a very favourable toxicological classification, which means very low toxicity, to the extent that they don’t even require a special authorization for use. Technically, they are classed as irritants. But they are very dangerous to bees. provides its content to all media free of charge. We would appreciate if you could acknowledge as the source of the content.
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