To bee or not to bee? There’s a sting in the tail

A UN study says globalisation is killing bees. The consequences for our food supply are enormous. Why is it happening and what’s to be done?

‘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 calculation, attributed to Albert Einstein, makes clear the importance of the honeybee to the world’s agricultural economy. It is estimated a third of the food we eat is pollinated by bees.

Yet unexplained bee deaths have become an increasing global concern in the past five years. It’s a phenomenon called ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ and the USA, Europe, Australia and Asia have all been affected.

So why are bees dying? A UN report, from their Environment Programme (UNEP), believes there are ‘more than a dozen factors’ behind the bee deaths.

These include air pollution, insecticides, new fast-spreading fungal diseases and varieties of parasites such as the varroa mite; as well as the loss of habitat for wild flowers in intensively farmed areas.

Biodiversity is crucial. Scientists have found that bees fed pollen from a range of plants have a healthier immune system than those eating pollen from a single type.

Writing in the journal Biology Letters, a French team say that bees need a fully functional immune system in order to sterilise food for the colony.

The report also suggests that air pollution makes it harder for bees to find plants. Scents that could carry 800m in the 19th century may travel only about 200m today, hindering their ability to find food.

And the economics of the bee? Their role in the food chain is so important that in 2007 The National Audit Office valued their services to the UK economy at £200m a year; with the retail value of what they pollinate closer to £1bn.

It’s reckoned they contribute £124bn to the global economy.

Meanwhile, there’s growing concern that the loss in numbers of pollinators, given the growing global population, could lead to serious problems with food supply in the medium term.

‘Bees,’ he claims, ‘underline the reality that we are more, not less dependent on nature’s services in a world of close to seven billion people.’

Collective future

Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP, said: ‘The way humanity manages or mismanages its nature-based assets, including pollinators, will in part define our collective future in the 21st century.’

He says that humans have created the illusion that in modern times they have the technological know-how to be independent of nature. But this is not so.

You Decide

  1. Should we try to be independent of nature – or work with it?
  2. ‘Science is the solution not the problem.’ Could this be true for the bees?


  1. Research the growing hobby of bee keeping. Then write a short piece about why you would — or why you wouldn’t — consider it.
  2. Research the science of the plight of the honeybee. You could start here.

Some People Say...

“Humans wreck everything.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I never realised bees were so important.
Of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of the world’s food, more than 70 are pollinated by bees.
And what is pollination?
It’s the process by which pollen is transferred between plants, enabling fertilisation and sexual reproduction.
But pesticides aren’t helping?
When they combine, they can form a lethal cocktail that can damage bees’ sense of direction and memory.
So what’s to be done?
Well, environmental concern has stirred many to take up beekeeping. There are now 180 beekeepers in the centre of London.
And what does the British Beekeepers Association recommend?
They want more wild flowers planted around fields and say local authorities must increase flowering trees and wild flower planting in towns and cities.

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