Bees are in decline, but what does this mean for the environment? Quite simply, no bees, no food
Bees are known as one of the most industrious insects for good reason. Busy bees help to pollinate some of our most beloved foods including broccoli, asparagus, cucumbers, blueberries, almonds, cranberries and cherries.
Pollination is the founding process of our food chain and some of the largest mammals on the planet, including humans, are dependent on pollination to ensure food security. Bees are by far the most successful pollinators and therefore the survival of bees is essential for the world to continue to function correctly. However, bee populations are in steep decline and have been for the last four decades.
In this article we will be delving into the world of bees to understand why they are so important in supporting our environment and we will be examining the reasons for their decline, as well as how we can help ensure that bees are not lost to Earth forever.
With alarming regularity humans are the source of the worst exploitation of non-human animals; speciesism and blatant disregard for the lives of sentient beings is rife and bees are no exception, unfortunately.
Why are bees so important? All of the creatures on the earth are important and we are by no means insinuating that the lives of bees are any more, or less, important than any other sentient creature that we share the earth with. The fact is, however, that bees buzz and dance enthusiastically at the bottom of the food chain ensuring that many of the animals above them have enough food to eat. This is because bees are vital in ensuring that plants are pollinated.
Pollination is the process of moving grains of pollen from one plant to another and in the process, fertilising the new plant, allowing that plant to create seeds and, thus, reproduce. Sure, other insects are also pollinators including ants, flies, moths and beetles, but none are as successful or efficient at doing so as bees. It has been estimated that one in six flowering species and over 400 agricultural plants are pollinated by bees. Without bees, many of these plants will not fruit or produce seeds.
The significance of this should not be undervalued — bees fertilise around 70 per cent of all food crops in the UK and a 2007 study proposed that this could be as large as 35 per cent of the world food crop production. That means that one in three bites of food is derived from plants pollinated by bees.
In an age where world hunger equates to 815 million people (according to the World Health Organisation), can we really afford to lose bees? Sadly, habitat destruction, climate change and the use of pesticides are all contributing to the rapid reduction in bee populations.
Why are they in decline? Since the 1980s there has been a long term decline in the number of bees and, as you would expect, there has also been a consequential decline in the distribution of the plants that are reliant upon bees. Our countryside is slowly degrading ecologically and aesthetically.
Farmed bees have fared far better population-wise than wild bees, mainly because they have a controlled food source and a secure hive compared to wild bees. Farmed bees are used to pollinate high-profit crops like soft fruits and tomatoes or they are used for their honey.
Wild bees, on the other hand, are in decline with 9.2 per cent of European wild bee species threatened with extinction and over 5 per cent likely to become threatened in the near future. Habitat loss is one of the major contributors to this fall in bee numbers. Urbanisation and reduced diversity due to intensive agriculture are narrowing the suitable areas for bees to set up shop and it is no surprise, therefore, that bees create hives in the rooflines of houses, in sheds or in back gardens.
The human need to control is having a devastating impact on bee populations and the problem is only getting worse. In the 1990s the introduction of neonicotinoids further depressed the plight of bees. Neonicotinoids are used in over 120 different countries around the world and despite opposition from the chemical industry, the evidence that there is a direct link between the use of neonicotinoids and declining bee numbers is mounting.
What are neonicotinoids? Neonicotinoids are pesticides known as systematic pesticides. Systematic pesticides do not simply stay on the surface of the plants they are sprayed onto, but are absorbed into the plant itself. When animals eat any part of the plant, they ingest the neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids bind to the insects central nervous system and are effective at killing animals which are considered to be ‘pests’ — most commonly species like mayflies and caddisflies.
Chlorothalonil is the most widely used pesticide spray in the UK and it was used on four and a half million hectares of land in 2016 alone. This doesn’t only affect the land it is used on, but many of these pesticides are highly soluble in water and therefore can be carried into streams, rivers, lakes and the oceans by rain falling on these fields. One research study claimed that less than 10 per cent of pesticide used ends up on the crop with the other 90+ per cent ending up in the soil, water, air and nearby plants.
Neonicotinoids are applied to control insects that farmers deem as ‘pests’ to agricultural crops. However, it is not simply crops which are affected by the application of neonicotinoids. Wildflowers which grow in close proximity to crops have been found to be infected by neonicotinoids, as well as hedgerow species such as hawthorns, which play an important part as the habitats for key species in the Great British countryside. Hawthorne blossoms are a major source of pollen for bees and recent studies have found that blossom pollen can have up to six different types of insecticides and fungicides in them.
Matt Shardlow, at conservation charity Buglife, said: “The way we humans are managing the landscape is putting bees are under enormous pressure, and just as we seem to be making progress towards a complete ban [in the EU] on a proven factor – neonicotinoid insecticides – it appears a very common fungicide could also be a driver of wild bee declines. Scientists and regulators must respond with urgent new studies.”
In 2013, the EU put restrictions on the use of three key neonicotinoids, a move welcomed by environmentalists at the time. Big agrochemical companies fought against these bans and according to Greenpeace the industry spent millions on PR denying the link between pesticides and bee deaths.
Indeed, the UK government itself didn’t support these restrictions at first, but late last year the UK supported proposals to extend these restrictions. With Brexit looming it remains to be seen how the UK government will deal with neonicotinoids.
Despite the evidence against them, neonicotinoids cannot be blamed as the soul contributor to the steady decline in bee populations that we’ve witnessed over the last four centuries. Climate change, habitat destruction, flowerless landscapes, monocultures and increased cross-continental travel leading to spread of diseases between bee colonies are all partly to blame.
However, there is only so much good that looking back and attributing blame can do. We are now living with the facts and we need to make sure that we are doing all we can to improve the environment for bees to thrive again. Planting local flowers such as wild roses, wild berries and weeds such as fireweed and willows will provide a food source for native bees. Contrary to what you might think, bees like an untidy garden with long grass and loose leaf matter. If the thought of an overgrown garden is a little too much for you, you could designate a small area of your garden as a wildflower garden and fence it off. Not only will you have created a habitat for bees, but you will find that beetles, aphids and all sorts of gorgeous critters will soon be visiting your wild patch. Buying vegan honey products such as those sold at Grace’s Vegan Pantry and educating others about exploitation of bees for honey can also protect bees from human control in the future.