The European parliament has vetoed a move by member states and the European commission to weaken EU rules protecting bee colonies from toxic pesticides.
MEPs blocked revised legislation that was said to ignore the risk to bee larvae from long-term exposure to chemicals, known as chronic toxicity.
The MEPs instead argued a guidance document produced by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in 2013 should be fully implemented.
The guidance seeks both to protect bees from adverse effects from a single exposure or multiple exposures over a short period of time, known as acute toxicity, and also long-term exposure.
Sixteen member states, which have not been publicly named, lobbied against the full implementation of the guidance before the new rules are brought to a vote in the European parliament.
Green MEPs who led the way on the parliamentary veto claimed the new generation of systemic pesticides, which are applied via seed treatment rather than spraying, made chronic exposure particularly relevant.
Bee populations have collapsed around the world and the use of pesticides is said to be the main cause.
A 2019 analysis of 353 wild bee and hoverfly species in the UK found the insects have been lost from a quarter of the places in which they were found in 1980.
The parliamentary veto was passed by 533 MEPs, with 67 voting against and 100 abstentions.
Bas Eickhout, a Dutch Green party MEP, said: “The parliament’s objection is sending a strong signal to the commission not to bow to the pressure of member states and the agrochemical industry.
“The parliament is demanding a new text that fully implements existing scientific guidelines. Bee populations are suffering everywhere, largely due to the use of pesticides, with major consequences for our ecosystems and food supplies.
“Bees come into contact with small quantities of a pesticide over a long period of time and this is where the real problem lies; that’s why chronic toxicity needs to be fully included in the assessment of pesticides.”
Eickhout claimed pesticide producers had gone to great lengths to maintain their “toxic business model” and that the commission had been complicit in weakening protections.
“This change of legislation has received relatively little attention so far because it has been discussed behind closed doors at the technical level. It’s time for the European commission to present a proper proposal at the political level so that member states can be held accountable for this issue and then many EU countries might change their tune,” he said.
Bees pollinate more than 80% of crops and wild plants in Europe. Last year, the EU banned the world’s most widely used insecticides, neonicotinoids, from all fields.
The chemicals were found to cause a wide range of harms including memory damage and a reduction in queen numbers. But the ban included an exemption for greenhouses, raising fears the chemical could still wash out into watercourses.