SAVING THE BEES
BY JAMES HOLT
BY JAMES HOLT
The humble bee is often viewed as nothing more than a honey producing insect whose buzz provides a back noise to summer, at worst it is viewed as a pest. In the face of rapidly declining bee populations policy makers are beginning to treat the lives of these tiny creatures as a major priority. In this article we will see the importance of bees to our day to day lives as well as the causes and impact of the continuing fall in bee numbers.
WHAT DO BEES DO?
Bees of which there are at least 20,000 species divided into 7 or 9 distinct families are best known for their production of honey despite the fact only a small proportion of the 20,000 or so species actually produce honey. Bees feed and utilise nectar, a sweet substance that bees suck from flowers and plants, for two purposes, one, for their own energy needs, and two, as a food source for their young. The bee is not the only one winning from this collection of nectar. As the bee lands on a male flower or plant its feet pick up pollen, this pollen is then transferred to female plants as the bee goes around collecting more nectar thereby pollinating the female plant and allowing it to produce the seeds from which new flowers and plants will grow.
It is believed that bees are responsible for pollinating about one-sixth of the flowering plant species worldwide and approximately 400 different agricultural types of plant. While some plants and flowers may be hand-pollinated by humans this is highly labour intensive and costly. The importance of bees to agriculture can therefore not be underestimated.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEES
It is estimated that globally one-third of all food supplies requires bees in order for reproduction to occur. In other words every third bite of food was on average produced with the help of bees. In the United States in 2010 bees helped produce $19 billion worth of agricultural crops while in Europe pollinators are estimated to be worth €22bn (£16bn) a year. Environmental activist group Greenpeace has made the claim that worldwide the total economic value of bee pollination is around €265 billion annually. Therefore from an economic and food security point of view it is easy to see why bees are an invaluable ecological asset.
BEES ARE DISSAPEARING AT AN ALARMING RATE
VanEngelsdorp and Meixner writing in the Journal of Invertebrate Pathologynotably noted that in the period between 1961 and 2007 managed bee colonies decreased in both Europe and North America by the scales of 26.5% and 49.5% respectively. According to the Wall Street Journal in the United States since 2006 bee-keepers have observed that there has been a sudden increase in what is known as ‘colony-collapse disorder’ (CCD) whereby bees suddenly flee their hive resulting in the number of bees dying out. Greenpeace states there has been a 40% fall in commercial honeybees in the United States since 2006, a 25% fall in Europe since 1985 and a 45% fall in the UK since 2010.
WHAT IS CAUSING THE SUDDEN FALL?
Multiple theories have been provided as to the reason for the sudden falloff in bee numbers. The three most prevalent beliefs relating to the decline in bee numbers are the rapid spread of parasites and disease native to bees, the destruction of the natural habitat on which bees feed as a result of industrial agriculture and climate change, and the widespread use of insecticides in industrial agriculture. Other more unique theories exist, such as Wi-Fi and other technologies disrupting the behavioural pattern of bees.
WHAT IS BEING DONE?
The fall in bee numbers has not gone unnoticed by policy makers. In 2013 the EU banned neonicotinoid pesticides, partly as a result of a petition that was signed over 2.5 million times on activist site Avaaz. Neonicotinoids are a form of pesticide which scientists have attributed to bee-loss. While this may appear progress a current report by the European Food Safety Authority due at the end of 2017 may lead the way to either the tightening or relaxation of the current bans on these pesticides. Corporate interests and their lobbyists pushed hard against the initial implementation of the ban and have been pushing for it to be repealed.
Multinationals such as Bayer called the initial ban ‘draconian’ and a drag on competitiveness and with many millions of pounds at stake will no doubt pull all legal and political manoeuvres required to repeal the ban. Indeed corporations such as Bayer, BASF and Syngenta even unsuccessfully attempted to sue the European Commission after the ban was implemented.
In July 2015 the UK the ban on neonicotinoid pesticide was removed in some parts of the UK for use on oilseed crops much to the dismay of bee campaigners and in a further regressive move the EFSA in 2015 approved the use of Sufloxalfor a powerful neonicotinoid. New Scientist magazine has claimed that European authorities had been under pressure from Dow AgroSciences the multinational manufacturer of Sufloxalfor. In the United States a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides is also being considered but in direct contrast to the EU the US has not banned neonicotinoids in general but has banned the use of Sufloxaflor.
While some progress has been made in terms of pesticides not enough is being done in terms of habitat preservation or towards challenging the spread of bee diseases and parasites, and this while much of the progress in terms of pesticides is being continually challenged by powerful actors. It is clear how important bees are to our day to day lives, how much the public cares about our bees and that some policy makers are waking up to the importance of the challenge. Only time will tell if we can stem the flow of bee decline and reinvigorate the lives of our buzzing friends.