Opinion: Night crop spraying is small price to pay to save bees

It came as a bit of a surprise to learn that pesticide spraying during the daytime is to be banned in France. Not least because we are led to believe by our predominantly eurosceptic British politicians that “France” is a byword for lax interpretation of European Commission environmental directives and that the French government will do anything to give its own farmers an “unfair” competitive advantage over farmers in other EU countries.

I must admit, though, that I do have a personal grudge against French farmers who spray in the daytime. Almost 23 years ago to this day my wife and I were setting off on our honeymoon, which was to be a two-week meander through northern France visiting cities and country towns, sampling delicious food and wine and generally soaking up the splendour of Picardy in early summer.

The trouble was that our trip coincided with me having left my own farm in Sussex with a spraying programme hopelessly behind schedule due to a relentlessly wet and windy April. So, while my wife happily anticipated her first sight of Beauvais Cathedral, all I could think about were sprayers operating in perfect conditions to the left and right of us as we drove through the Paris basin. After two days of me becoming ever quieter in our little open-top sports car, she suddenly turned to me with a concerned look and said: “I think we’d better get you back home and on to your tractor.” She’s a woman and a half, my wife.

Now French agriculture minister Stephane Le Foll, concerned among other things about bee colony collapse disorder and that French honey production has declined from 33,000t in 1995 to 15,000t last year, has decided to limit farmers to spraying in the evenings between March and October. He hopes allowing spraying only after bees have stopped gathering nectar will help reduce the alarming decline in French bee numbers.

As an arable farmer I guess I am supposed to stand shoulder to shoulder with the farming unions and the Crop Protection Association and stamp my foot – hopefully not on a groggy bee – at any suggestion that the armoury of pesticides that we bring to bear on our crops should not be reigned in to protect bees on the cautionary principle. The farm lobby say, for instance, that the evidence that bees are adversely effected by neonicotinoids is at best flimsy or inconclusive.

But it’s a matter of common sense that coating a bee in a chemical such as imidacloprid (a representative neonicotinoid) that targets sucking, chewing and soil insects might not be good for a bee who happens to be on its way to and from its hive gathering pollen. Just as potentially dangerous is where traces of chemicals have been found in morning dew on crops. This is where spraying has been carried out after dawn, but before bees become active – one can think of a healthier breakfast for a bee than pollen soaked in a nicotine derivative.

As farmers we all know the value of these chemicals in terms of improved crop yields, but I cannot help but lend my support to Monsieur Le Foll’s proposal. Perhaps it is simply the case that if similar restrictions are one day introduced in the UK, we will all have to invest in greater sprayer capacity to be able to carry out our spraying programmes in the evening after the bees have all retired to their hives. A small price to pay in the ongoing battle to reverse the decline of this priceless insect.

Stephen Carr farms 566ha on the South Downs, near Eastbourne, East Sussex.