Too bee or not too bee, there is no questioning that we take for granted a species that gives us so much. The humble bee, although small in size is perhaps the most important animal to humans existence. One out of every three bites of our food depends on bees for pollination, and yet we are allowing the worlds bee populations to plummet, without thinking of the consequences to the ecosystems of which we depend on.
There are around 275 species of bees in the world, with most of these species been found in the northern hemisphere. In the UK there are 24 species but only eight are commonly found in most places. For much of the past 10 years, beekeepers have been reporting annual hive losses of 40% or higher, substantially more than is considered sustainable. The dramatic decline in populations of most species (both captive and wild), and the extinction of two species in the UK highlight that something must be done.
To understand the severity of the problem, first it must be made clear why bees are so important to us humans. Bees collect nectar from plants in order to feed the colony. As they move from plant to plant they transport pollen grains which fertilise the ovaries of flowers. While some plants are self-pollinated or wind-pollinated, most flowering plants require help from pollinators to produce fruit and seed, making bees an essential part of a healthy ecosystem. In a natural environment bees would pollinate wild flower meadows which are the basis of complex food chains of other wildlife.
Furthermore, perhaps the most worrying food chain is that of humans. In Europe alone, the growth of over 4,000 vegetables depend on the essential work of pollinators. Crops such as almonds, apples, alfalfa, melons, avocados, onions and many more rely on bees for pollination. Up to 75% of our crops would suffer some decrease in productivity if we lose our bees. Also worth considering is the fact that many of the crops used to feed our livestock are pollinated by bees, so if the bees suffer our livestock will also suffer.
Bees are fantastic pollinators and essential to many big food industries. Insects are estimated to contribute over £400 million per annum to the UK economy. In America the figure is estimated at $15 billion worth of crops each year. The most recent estimate of the global economic benefit of pollination amounts to around £265 billion, assessed as the value of crops dependant on natural pollination. It is clear to see that this problem stretches beyond environmental concern and into more economical and therefore political problems.
So what is going on? Why are the worlds bee’s disappearing? As the world’s population increases, so does the demand for increased food production. Changes in agricultural techniques have led to fragmentation of natural habitats, expansion of monocultures and lack of diversity of wildflowers in our landscapes. It has been estimated that the UK has lost 97% of our flower-rich grassland since the 1930’s. These destructive concerns limit bee-nesting ability as well as simply destroying pollinator’s food sources.
As mentioned, pollinators have moved from having natural habitats available to large agricultural monocultures as their forage. Despite the fact it is the insects who pollinate these stocks, owners still cover them in chemical based insecticides. Vastly popular pesticides called neonicotinoids have firm evidence of having adverse effects to our pollinators. They are chemically similar to nicotine, the compound that plants in the nightshade family have evolved to protect themselves from pests.
Invented in the 1980’s, neonicotinoids quickly became a popular crop treatment because they are systemic, meaning they circulate through the whole plant and kill bugs as soon as they feast on the crop. Unfortunately these attractive properties for farmers are what makes neonicotinoids such a concern for bee welfare, because a systemic insecticide easily makes its way to the nectar and pollen of a flowering plant. Chronically exposed bees have lower life expectancy and poorer hygiene conditions in the hive. These harmful chemicals also leach into the soil and enter into wild flower populations meaning that pollinators have no safe food source.
The combination of decreasing habitat and habitat degradation (poisoning) is the reason our pollinator populations are decreasing so rapidly. Humans are already feeling the effect of reduced bee populations. A scramble to find enough bees to pollinate California’s almond groves in this year’s harvest has given the world a taste of what may lie in store for food production if the widespread decimation of bee colonies continues.
As demand for pollinators – both locally and globally- increases faster than the supply, we could be facing limitation of pollination, currently and in the near future. This is due to the fact that the growth in cultivation of high value, pollination-dependent crops is outpacing growth in the global stock of managed honeybees, while wild pollinator abundance and diversity is also been constrained.
In order to halt the destruction of such a fragile ecosystem service it is imperative that we start to protect our pollinator populations. To achieve this humans need to start maintaining a greater diversity of pollinator habitats; supporting traditional practices that manage habitat fragmentation, such as crop rotation; decreasing the use of pesticides; changes to bee husbandry and commercial pollination practices and public education and awareness campaigns must be encouraged.
Thankfully there is currently a positive local response to declines, with many small scale farmers choosing to work in ways that are sympathetic to bees. Some farmers have made a few simple changes to their techniques, which have meant more flowers blooming, and bee populations recovering in some areas. However, on the larger scale more effort must be made. Farmers unions should work together in order to have a mass change in practise and governments must but bans in place on the most harmful pesticides.
It is also possible for individuals to help bumblebees in their own communities. Perhaps the simplest thing to do is to plant some bee-friendly plants in your garden. As gardens cover over one million acres in the UK, this presents a great opportunity to provide food for bees which could strengthen their populations.
Despite the bee’s small size, the size of its impact as a global pollinator is undoubted. It is us humans who are destroying their home and poisoning their food. However, in doing so we are also destroying our own food sources. Unfortunetly the government are busy counting the pennies they have in their pockets at the moment and are less worried about future issues. The fact is the bees are in trouble, and therefore humans are in trouble.