A picture of a dead bee in a human hand posted on a local Facebook page was the catalyst for the start of something big. Seemingly healthy, legs laden with pollen, herbicides were blamed for its demise. Beth Clay and Laura Hackett – the founders of Bee Friendly Brum – quickly bonded and began a mission to stop Birmingham City Council using these chemicals in our urban spaces.
But is there actually anything wrong with herbicides, or are we making a fuss about nothing?
The motivation behind our campaign
Regular areas to be treated include around streetlamps, signs, trees and cracks in paths and pavements; it is an easy way to remove unwanted plant life (otherwise known as weeds) from these places. However, many people are questioning why something requiring full protective clothing for the operators is being sprayed liberally around the city.
Investigation revealed a selection of herbicides are used by the council around Birmingham. Commonly they contain a chemical – glyphosate – which is linked to an array of worrying headlines. Glyphosate works by inhibiting an enzyme involved in making the building blocks for both microbial and plant life. More complex creatures such as humans, animals and insects like bees, don’t have this enzyme, so glyphosate has been touted as the perfect ‘safe’ solution to unwanted plants. However, there is increasing evidence to suggest it can have detrimental effects for all life.
Many safety datasheets for glyphosate emphasise the importance of not letting it run into drains. Furthermore, a lot of the work on its safety and environmental break-down has a focus on agricultural land, so it is often overlooked that use in towns and cities results in glyphosate landing on less porous surfaces such as roads and pavements, where it may sit or work its way into local waterways. Glyphosate has a long half-life in water and is detrimental to aquatic organisms. Its effect on soil should also not be ignored; evidence now suggests that glyphosate in soil affects non-target plants, such as the trees whose bases are often treated without care for their health.
Impact of glyphosate on creatures
Our main concern about glyphosate use is the impact on creatures who rely on weeds as food-sources and habitats. Globally, insects are declining to a worrying extent, with a recent survey by BugLife suggesting that England’s flying insects have declined by more than 60% in 20 years. Some may think nothing of this; they’re just bugs, right? But lose our insects, and we reduce the pollination of an important fraction of our food supply and disrupt other natural food chains.
“The results from the Bugs Matter study should shock and concern us all. We are seeing declines in insects, which reflect the enormous threats and loss of wildlife more broadly across the country.
“These declines are happening at an alarming rate and without concerted action to address them we face a stark future. Insects and pollinators are fundamental to the health of our environment and rural economies.”Paul Hadaway, director of conservation at Kent Wildlife Trust
So how does glyphosate affect bees? Studies have shown that sublethal effects alter bee navigation, immunity and even sleep. More importantly, a recent study showed that during times of resource scarcity, bumblebees were less successful in maintaining the right conditions for larval development if they had been exposed to normal, ‘field’ levels of glyphosate.
Although glyphosate may not be lethally toxic to bees at low concentrations, it can affect population numbers in the long-term. Glyphosate is also classed as probably carcinogenic to humans due to its link to the development of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
There are also reports of dogs and cats becoming acutely unwell after direct exposure to sprayed environments, although this may be caused by the additional ingredients present in the glyphosate formulas to improve bioactivity.
Taking action for Birmingham’s bees and other pollinators
Our enquiries revealed that Birmingham City Council’s Highways Service currently weed-treats hard surfaces from April to October, carrying out four spray cycles of spot treatment. This covers the city’s highway network and eight cycle lanes in the city centre. 1,280.7 litres of glyphosate and 6,300 litres of herbicide products are used. The Parks Service applies these chemicals three times a year in locations across the city’s green spaces and schools, using 3,010 litres during this process.
Searching local social media had revealed no locally active groups specifically supporting Brummie bees, but we found an organisation called Pesticide Free Towns (PFT) which supports pesticide-free movements all over the country. PFT advised us that a social media presence would be a good starting point to build some momentum, and so we created a Bee Friendly Brum Facebook page at the beginning of May 2021 and quickly attracted hundreds of members despite our inexperience with campaigning.
On 28 May 2021 (World Bee Day), Bee Friendly Brum launched a petition calling on Birmingham City Council to ban pesticides in our city.
Our request was simple – listen to the concerns of citizens and work with council contractors to phase out all use of pesticides, including glyphosate, in Birmingham. Where possible, leave urban green spaces to grow to improve the urban environment for our crucial pollinators. Where weed management is necessary, the council should use more environmentally-friendly alternatives.
As the petition gained more signatures it was noticed by local press who asked to cover the campaign. Interviews with Birmingham Live and Radio WM provided a fantastic opportunity to promote our goal and raise the issue of pesticide use in our city.
To date, the petition has over 97,000 signatures and has become one of the top locally-signed petitions on Change.org! We gained more exposure by expanding to Twitter as @BeeFriendyBrum thanks to a group member Jane Trobridge, which got us noticed by people with large numbers of followers, including singer Emma Blackery who shared our petition with her 621k followers giving us a huge boost (thanks Emma!) and local activist groups @Team4Nature and Birmingham Friends of the Earth who have been very supportive.
Since we launched our campaign, we‘ve had several online meetings with council members to push for a phase-out of herbicide use, which have always been positive in nature. However, they raised anxieties about what the alternatives would be and how much they would cost to implement. The changes that we requested did not seem to be of a very high priority, which made us more determined to demonstrate there is support for action.
On Sunday 10 July 2022, just over a year after we launched, Bee Friendly Brum submitted our petition to the new Birmingham City Council cabinet member for the environment, Cllr Majid Mahmood. We hosted a Bee Parade in Highbury Park to mark the occasion, joined by friends, supporters, and Councillor Izzy Knowles. This event drew local media attention, including from the BBC and Birmingham Live, which has helped us gain more publicity.
Data extraction revealed that over 12,000 of the petition signatures were Birmingham residents which triggered an automatic debate at Overview and Scrutiny in the Council House, and we have been invited to this meeting in September to present our case to the council and answer questions. We are both thrilled at this opportunity to speak up for nature and make our city a better place to live for ALL its residents.
This might not be the last step though – if we can demonstrate 20,000 Birmingham-based signatures on our petition soon, it would qualify for a full council debate which would really get our message heard.
We can continue to collect signatures while the petition advances through the council processes, so please sign and share the petition, especially if you’re a Birmingham resident.