Rising bee deaths cause a buzz among experts
This charismatic creature is vital for our food production, but experts are alarmed by the mysterious decline of bees over the past few decades. What can be done to save them?
‘If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.’
This stark, apocalyptic warning, often attributed to Albert Einstein, shows just how important these appealing creatures are. Without the humble bee, there would be no cotton, no chocolate or coffee, a vast reduction in the types of fruit and vegetables on offer, and certainly no honey to spread on hot toast and crumpets.
And yet bee populations all over the world are in trouble. A US government report published earlier this month warned that honeybees are dying off at too high a rate to guarantee their long-term survival, even though fewer were lost this winter than in the previous one. The total losses among honeybees across the US was 23.2% during the 2013-14 winter.
The report coincides with a landmark European study which reveals that the UK is also suffering one of the worst rates of honeybee colony deaths in Europe. In the cold winter of 2012-13, 29% of honeybee colonies in the UK died. A quarter of bumblebee species in Europe are also threatened with extinction.
Pollination by bees is required for a third of all the products found in UK shopping baskets. A quarter of the entire US food crop depends on pollination from honeybees – including tomatoes, potatoes, apples, beans, cherries, broccoli, onions and alfalfa, the last of which is fed to cows. Scientists have estimated the value of bees to the UK economy is £200m a year.
So what is bugging the bee? The collapse of US honeybee populations is widely attributed to a class of insecticides used in agriculture, known as neonicotinoids, which can kill bees outright or weaken their ingenious navigation systems.
But that is not all. The European Union banned the three most widely used neonicotinoids last year, yet climate change, disruption to habitat, fluctuations in weather and parasitic mite infections also continue to decimate bee numbers
To bee or not to bee
How best can humans deal with these alarming losses in many parts of the world? Some environmental groups have called for a ban on neonicotinoids in the US, following the EU’s decision last year. The science is increasingly pointing an accusatory finger at the major damage these chemicals do.
But banning insecticides is not enough, others warn. Bees have been in decline for decades as intensive farming methods have resulted in a loss of their natural habitats. And banning insecticides could have unpredictable consequences for our agriculture. A balance must be struck between growing enough to feed the world’s population and ensuring the survival of bees.
- What should be done to reverse the decline of the bee?
- Do you agree that humans would only have four years left to live if bees became extinct?
- In groups, produce an infographic which displays key facts and figures about bees.
- Draw a cartoon strip that explains why the bee is so important, and what the consequences of a bee-less world would be.
Some People Say...
“Bees are the most valuable species we have.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Are bees really that important?
- Yes! So important in fact, that in some parts of China where bees are extinct, weird alternatives are being tried out. People have been employed to do the work of bees themselves, by brushing the inside of plants such as pear trees with pollen – using feather dusters.
- Great, problem solved!
- Not so fast. This ‘solution’ is both highly impracticable and costly. The University of Reading has calculated that to employ British workers on the national minimum wage to dust plants with pollen would more than double the cost of our fruit and vegetables. And when you consider a single hive of 50,000 honeybees pollinates half a million plants in one day, it is clearly not a practical solution. We must do more to save bees, not find ways to replace them.
- The process by which insects help plants reproduce. Insects, like bees, transfer pollen between flowering plants of the same type. The pollen fertilises egg cells to make seeds.
- There are 20,000 bee species around the world including solitary bees, bumblebees and honeybees. Many are monolectic – meaning that they only pollinate one plant species – while others, like bumblebees and honeybees, are polylectic. Bumblebees live in colonies of a few hundred, yet honeybees live in hives of up to 50,000.
- The Epilobee study surveyed 31,800 colonies and is the first pan-European assessment of the rate of colony deaths.
- The insecticide is sprayed onto the seeds of plants, and the chemicals then affect the nervous systems of insects. The pesticides were partly adopted because they are considered safer and less toxic for mammals, including human beings.
- The Asian varroa mite can live on the back of an adult bee for two years and feed off the bee’s blood. It has been transported to every country around the world except Australia.