Opinion: with the bee and other insects facing a bleak future, it may be time to use legislation to reverse their decline

By Ciarán Crowley, Université de Lille

We received dark news recently about the rapid decline of the bee and all other insects across the planet with even faster declines recorded in Ireland. The results are startling and the outlook is bleak. It has been confirmed to all of us that our children and grandchildren will grow up in a world seeing less of the glories of nature than we did. It is sad, as the bee (there are currently 98 types of bees in Ireland) is loved by all, especially children. From a young age, every child knows that the fat bumblebee poses no harm on a summer’s day. She is too busy about her work to bother us. It is the infernal wasp that stings. 

It is only natural to hark back to an idyllic past when bees were more widespread and birds like the corncrake sang across the country as a rule, rather than an exception. But the focus must now be on the present and it is time to consider hope, and solutions. 

Be(e) proactive 

So what can be done? We must now foster a can-do attitude and look to see what difference we can exert in our own corner. It is easy to get discouraged. It is easy to look at the headlines and think there’s little point in trying to start to solve the problem.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Marian Finucane show, the late Philip McCabe, president of the International Federation of Beekeepers, on the decline of Irish bees

Instead, we can start by trying to change small things in our daily lives to help nature. Il faut cultiver notre jardin, as French philosopher Voltaire put it in a slightly different context. Rather than cultivating our garden, it is held that we must let our garden grow. Manicured lawns are very pretty, and excellent for golf, but aren’t much good for bees and other insects. Give away parts of your garden when cutting the grass. Plant wildflowers if you have the time. Become a beekeeper.

Town and country

We are not all fortunate enough to have a garden, a plot of land or a farm so what about city denizens? More and more of us are living in large urban areas, far removed from the call of the wild. There is some hope (and even some advantages) for certain types of bees in cities. Ironically, and what may be surprising to many, bees have been declining the fastest in rural areasm where agriculture is highly intensive, and where many pesticides are used. For example, Regulation (EC) No 1107/2009 is a European law that seeks to limit the use of pesticides, which can be very harmful to honeybees.

There are other advantages for bees in urban environments. Cities are warmer and there is more food available. In the UK, studies have found that bees are following their human counterparts to the towns as intensive agriculture is forcing them to seek alternative habitats. Rooftop gardens and abandoned sites can also be urban homes for bees. Becoming a beekeeper may now be a pursuit for all, and not only those with a garden in the countryside.

From RTÉ One's Six One News, a 2018 report on how Dublin Airport bees have produced their first batch of honey

Law and morals

I have not mentioned the law yet. I have begun with a moral appeal to ask that we all try to do our bit to help the beloved bee. The law and morals work side-by-side, but the law is not always needed to enforce morals.

Let’s think of a simple example in our daily lives: a friend who asks for a lift to a match. We then make a promise to take him to the hurling match next weekend. Whilst it would seem strange to impose a legal obligation on us to drive someone to a match, we do feel under a moral duty to take him. If we don’t take our friend to the match we will feel guilt or shame. This may be due to the fact we’ve left down our teammates or because the match was lost in the friend’s absence. The punishment may be a moral sanction: the manager will drop you for the next match as you disrupted the spirit in the camp.

But what if a moral obligation is not enough to hold us to our promises? Or what if a moral demand is not enough to change our behaviour for the good? It is then the law steps in as these examples show

(a) Helmets were introduced in hurling to reduce risk of injury

(b) The smoking ban in pubs was introduced to help us do less damage to our lungs

(c) Learner drivers are now not allowed to drive on their own unless accompanied by a fully- qualified driver

(d) Seatbelts were introduced to reduce the risk of death in car accidents.

From RTÉ Archives, a RTÉ News report on the introduction of compulsory seat belt laws on February 1st 1979

We may not all agree with such reforms as they reduce our personal liberty. We may also argue that these laws are unjust in that some people are affected more than others (people living in the countryside need a car whilst those in a city do not). Such laws can be bothersome and criticised as representing a nanny state. These are persuasive arguments and we must debate them as a society.

But when changing laws through our representatives in the Dáil, we have decided that there is enough consensus on the issue to change the law, thereby enforcing a new legal obligation on us. We may not all like it, but we are now obliged to follow the law and take the risk of possible punishment if we do not abide by the law.

If moral pressure is deemed not to be enough to help threatened habitats and species, such as the bee, should we impose new legal obligations? And if the answer is yes, what legal obligations can we propose to help the situation?

From RTÉ One's Nine News, a 2017 report into research which shows a dramatic fall in the number of bees, butterflies and moths

Some legal proposals

Let’s say that the answer to question (1) is "yes", due to the fact that action is needed now considering the importance of bees to our ecosystem and way of life. We could also make other arguments (that our children will have an increased chance of growing up seeing the beauty of bees, and so on).

It is then proposed that a list of possible "bee-friendly" legal obligations be placed on governments, multinationals, farmers, landowners, homeowners and city dwellers to help bees. I begin with farmers and landowners (including the government) as they own most land and can institute most beneficial change. Some of these could be

(1) Ask the government to buy land and create more national nature reserves and native woodlands. Ireland currently has the lowest percentage of native woodlands in the European Union and such goals are in line with the EU's Habitats Directive

(2) Impose environmental taxes on cash-rich multinationals who, arguably, cause the most damage of all.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, senior ecologist at the National Biodiversity Data Centre Dr Úna Fitzpatrick on how local councils can lead the way in saving bees

(3) Promote more biodiversity, habitat regeneration and "rewilding". Give grants to farmers, as has been done in Ireland with a degree of success under the GLAS scheme and in Australia by state governments in Victoria and Tasmania

(4) Ask landowners and farmers to give-up a small area of land (5-10%) to nature, if they have the means or to trim hedgerows in rotation.

(5) Request farmers not to knock hedges, ditches and woodlands that support wildlife, especially if such measures mean a comparatively small increase in short-term profits as against long-term benefits for nature. The cutting of or removal of hedgerows during the bird nesting season (March 1st to August 31st) is forbidden under Section 40 of the Wildlife Act 1976. This is currently under review but stricter rules could be introduced. In England, the Hedgerows Regulations 1997 were introduced to make it illegal to remove most countryside hedges without first getting the permission of your local council.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Countrywide in 2016, Suzanne Campbell reports on a clash between wildlife groups & the IFA over hedgerows

(6) A tax could be paid by landowners and farmers in each parish to help local nature projects. Contrary to national taxes, the benefits could be directly seen and reflect the redistributive model in Swiss cantons.

(7) Require all people building a new home in the countryside or suburbs to plant a hedge and wildflowers 

(8) Ask all city dwellers without a garden or land to pay an environmental tax. This is defined under Regulation (EU) No 691/2011 as "a tax whose tax base is a physical unit… of something that has a proven, specific negative impact on the environment". On the grounds of fairness, all members of society should be asked to help and not only those living in the countryside).

Not all of these proposals will be greeted with open arms. People are concerned with making a living and are already tired of paying too many taxes. However, if proposals are discussed and implemented at local rather than national level, people may feel more implicated in the process and see the effects first-hand.

This challenge can be expressed as an inconvenience, but also an opportunity in sustainable land management for the next generation

There are many reasons for the decline in insect numbers. We are all implicated in the process and all hold some moral responsibility. That said, the changes in behaviour of some industries and some individuals can make a bigger difference than others. Big companies, governments, farmers, landowners and owners of properties with a garden or in the countryside are the players that can make the biggest difference to slow down the decline in insect numbers.

This challenge can be expressed as an inconvenience, but also an opportunity in sustainable land management for the next generation. As individuals we must all try to play our part. Furthermore, as I wrote in this series recently, we can also ask what law reforms can be put in place to help us on the right path.

Ciarán Crowley is a law lecturer (professeur certifié affecté dans l'enseignement supérieur) at Université de Lille


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ