Pesticides linked to a decline in bee populations are set to be outlawed, despite UK opposition, after the majority of European countries voted in favour of a ban.

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At a vote in Brussels, a majority of European countries voted to accept existing evidence that neonicotinoid pesticides are harmful to bees.

The ban will restrict the use of the three most common nicotinoids, imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, on crops which are attractive to bees.

However, there was not enough of a majority to force an immediate ban. Now the EU Commission has seized upon its right to make a final decision and said a ban would be put in place "in the coming weeks."

"Since our proposal is based on a number of risks to bee health identified by the European Food Safety Authority, the commission will go ahead with its text in the coming weeks," EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg said after the vote.

'Top priority'

The buzz over neonicotinoid pesticides has been heightened because of the economic importance of bees to the European and world economies. Bees, through pollination of crops such as rapeseed (pictured, above), are estimated to contribute €22bn to the European economy annually.

In England and Wales alone bee pollination is valued at between £127m and £277m to the economy, whilst the honey industry is estimated to be worth between £26.1m abnd £38.6m.

The UK government's refusal to back restrictions on these chemicals, despite growing scientific concern about their impact, is yet another blow to its environmental credibility. Andrew Pendleton, Friends of the Earth

However, the UK has fiercely resisted the move to ban neonicotinoids, saying more research should be done and adding that a ban may push farmers back to using other, more harmful, pesticides.

Defra has said a healthy bee population is a "top priority", but that it wants to make sure that "any action taken must be proportionate and not have any unforeseen knock-on effects".

Read more: where have all the bees gone?

There have been many theories as to the cause of "colony collapse disorder" - the symptom of declining bee populations - from the varroa mite to mobile phones.

'Common sense'

The British government is now facing criticism from campaign groups, who hailed the vote a success.

Marco Contiero, Greenpeace's EU agriculture policy director, said."Today's vote makes it crystal clear that there is overwhelming scientific, political and public support for a ban,"

"Those countries opposing a ban have failed. Now, the commission must draw the only conclusion possible and immediately halt the use of these pesticides as a first step to protect European food production and ecosystem."

Friends of the Earth said the vote was a "significant victory for common sense and our beleaguered bee populations".

Head of campaigns Andrew Pendleton said: "The UK government's refusal to back restrictions on these chemicals, despite growing scientific concern about their impact, is yet another blow to its environmental credibility.

"Ministers must now help farmers to grow and protect crops, but without relying so heavily on chemicals - especially those linked to bee decline."

Vanessa Amaral-Rogers, Buglife’s pesticide officer, said "At last, the politicians are starting to listen to the science. This is a good start, but this ban will not be robust enough.

"In reality, a two year suspension is not enough to see our bee populations recover. Neonicotinoids have a half-life (the time taken for half of the chemical to disappear) in soil of over three years, and will still be used on winter crops.

"The next step is to put a monitoring programme in place which will assess how all pollinators, not just honeybees, are doing as a result of the ban."

Ellie Crane, policy officer at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, added: "We are disappointed that the UK did not support the ban. However, we hope that our government will now strive to get the best result for UK farmers: helping them manage pests successfully and safely as part of wildlife-friendly systems of farming, without need for neonicotinoid pesticides."