Bees are important; together with other less well known insect pollinators, they pollinate three quarters of the crops we grow in the world; tomatoes, blueberries, courgettes, strawberries, melons, coffee and cacao, to name just a few. Without them, our diet would largely consist largely of bread, rice, and porridge; not an attractive prospect. Worryingly, bees seem to be in trouble. Domestic honeybee colonies seem to be dying far more frequently than they used to, and many of our wild bees have declined in abundance, with some going extinct. There is no danger that all bees will disappear completely, for there are 20,000 known species, including bumblebees, carpenter bees, sweat bees, mining bees, mason bees and many more. The worry is that they become scarce, so that crop yields start to drop at a time when the human population is rising fast.
The causes of bee declines are much debated, but most scientists agree that loss of natural, flower-rich habitats to agricultural monocultures has been the biggest driver. On top of that, we now use large quantities of insecticides in farming, some of which are extremely toxic to bees. We’ve also accidentally spread virulent bee diseases and parasites around the world, so that bees are often fighting infections which they have not had chance to develop resistance to. Hungry, poisoned and diseased, it is little wonder that bees are in decline.
What are the solutions to this bee apocalypse? Some have tried to develop robot bees, though current models are laughably inept compared to the real thing. Bees have been pollinating flowers tor 120 million years, so they have evolved to be very good at it. They also breed themselves for free, feed themselves, and give us honey as a bonus. Imagine the cost of replacing the world’s 3.2 trillion honeybees with robots, and that is just one species of pollinator. It seems to me that ensuring a future for real, living bees is by far the wisest option.
There are many initiatives currently underway to help our beleaguered bees. In Europe, farmers can get subsidies to plant flower strips along their field margins, and similar projects are being trialled in the USA. Conservation organisations promote gardeners to plant bee-friendly flowers, and to provide ‘bee hotels’ for bees to nest in. In Europe and parts of Canada, partial bans and restrictions on use of particularly harmful insecticides have been introduced. As yet though, it does not seem to be enough. What data we have suggests that bees and other insects such as butterflies (and for that matter other creatures such as birds and amphibians) are still declining, and fast. So far, the negative impacts of the global spread of intensive farming, supported by the continual development of new generations of pesticides, is swamping the efforts of conservationists.
Many scientists have come to the opinion that intensive production of single crops, treated with twenty or more chemicals to keep them alive, is not sustainable in the long term. It is damaging our soil, exposing humans to a cocktail of pesticide residues in our food, and it is driving massive declines in wildlife. The decline of bees is perhaps the clearest sign that this form of farming may be its own worst enemy – for if we continue to lose our bees, then crop yields will collapse. There are more sustainable alternatives; organic farming, permaculture, agroforestry. However, moving away from the conventional model of farming will require a major shift in culture that will be difficult to achieve. Brexit, whatever you views on it, provides a rare opportunity to radically change farming. Until now we have been constrained by the Common Agricultural Policy, which subsidises industrial farming and gives the bulk of the money to major landowners and precious little or nothing to small farmers using sustainable methods to provide locally grown food. It is time to turn this on its head, if we can.
In the meantime, perhaps we can turn our growing towns and cities into giant bee reserves? Gardens can be great places for bees, particularly if they are planted with a mix of “bee-friendly” flowers, and if no pesticides are used (there is really no need in the garden). Our parks, amenity spaces, school grounds, road verges and roundabouts could also be planted with flowers for bees, and school children could be encouraged to make and hang bee hotels in the school yard. This would have the added benefit of bringing people into closer contact with nature, helping them to appreciate the importance of these little creatures that do so much for us. If we help the bees, we help ourselves.
About Professor Dave Goulson
Dave Goulson has published more than 260 scientific articles on the ecology and conservation of bumblebees and other insects. Goulson founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006, a charity which has grown to 9,000 members.
Infinity and our neighbour the Brighton Natural Health Centre are running a free talk given by Professor Dave Goulson, on the decline of bees, and what can be done about it. The event is on Thursday 11 May – 6.30-8pm at the Brighthelm Centre. Sign up here for your place.