Bees are nature’s most important pollinators – and they’re dying

Bees are a vital pillar of our ecosystem. If we allow them to die out, the consequences for both the environment and the global economy will be cataclysmic

If bees are wiped out, it could be the end of all plant life, and the end of the planet as we know it

Nature’s countless creatures, large and small, each play their own particular and necessary role in the life of this planet. Ironically, as with so many of life’s little nuances, one of the most diminutive happens to have one of the greatest parts: the humble bee is a vital element of the environment – indeed, it is responsible for much of life as we know it.

And yet, despite our complete dependence, humankind has done an exceptionally poor job of protecting this critical species. In the US alone, by 1947, the number of bee colonies across the country had plummeted from six million to four million; by 1997, the figure had dropped to just 2.5 million, according to a press release published by the White House in June 2014.

The same trend has been seen across the pond in the UK: “Roughly 60 percent of our social bumblebee species have declined in range, and even widespread species are thought to be less common”, said Gill Perkins, CEO of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. “Two species have become nationally extinct and a further four species have declined in range by over 50 percent – only a minority of bumblebee species are thriving.”

Sweet like honey

Bees have an integral purpose within both natural ecosystems and commercial agriculture. According to the UN’s 2016 report Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production, 75 percent of all food crops and almost 90 percent of wild plants worldwide need animal pollinators to some extent.

While their importance varies among plants, and therefore regions, the yield and quality of many of the world’s most important cash crops rely to some extent on animal pollinators. Examples include cocoa and almonds, the former growing in developing economies and the latter in developed nations. Both crops provide significant export revenue and employment for millions across the globe. What’s more, many fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and oil crops that are dependent on bees are fundamental sources of vitamins and minerals in healthy diets.

As such, the pronounced decline of bees in both number and variety has a direct impact on food production, price and security. As food prices creep up, the negative impact felt in advanced economies worsens and spreads, while in developing nations it can be downright deadly.

The effect of dwindling bee populations can already be seen across the planet. In the UK, for example, “we already import 65,000 boxes of commercially bred bumblebees to satisfy our soft fruit industry”, said Perkins. “And only bumblebees can pollinate tomatoes through buzz pollination.”

To get some sense of the scale of this, consider the vast array of vegetables and fruits we have come to expect and enjoy on a daily basis – certainly in developed countries. Not to mention the various types of meat we eat, which are fed on products that also depend on animal pollination. “This is a very conservative estimate: the global value of pollinators to food production is estimated to be between about $235bn and $577bn each year”, said Simon Potts, Agri-Environment Research Professor at the University of Reading.

And yet, these figures, vast as they are, form just part of the story – there are numerous associated industries to consider as well. The most obvious is, of course, honey. Packed with nutrients and unmatched in flavour, honey has been eaten for millennia. The earliest reference to the highly versatile substance dates back some 8,000 years, to a rock painting found in Valencia, Spain, which depicts a figure delving into a beehive. Celebrated by the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians as a gift from the gods, honey was not only used to sweeten food and make desserts, it was also used for medicinal purposes due to its antiseptic qualities.

A major problem across the world that continues to worsen with each passing generation, particularly in developed nations, is the disconnect between what we eat and where it comes from

Bee by-products also have non-culinary uses. Following the introduction of Christianity, beeswax was employed to meet the exponential demand for church candles. The substance is also increasingly popular in the cosmetics industry, particularly for use in lip balms and hand creams. Burt’s Bees, a company that sells a wide range of beeswax products, grew so rapidly after being founded in 1984 that it was sold to manufacturing giant Clorox for $925m in 2007, with sales climbing to $5.7bn in 2015.

So important are the various products bees produce that entire supply chains, retailers, distributors, suppliers, producers and manufacturers rely on them. “So, the total global value of pollinators is [actually] many of hundreds of billions of dollars – it’s huge”, Potts said.

Growing buzz
With an expanding global population and the resultant burgeoning demand for food, the agricultural industry is under more strain than ever in its millennia-long history. In a bid to produce ever-growing volumes of crops and livestock, as well as to house growing populaces, vast areas of natural habitat are being converted into farmland and urban areas at an unceasing pace. The upshot is a huge loss of natural features in the landscape, such as hedges and grasslands, which directly impacts the various species these elements house.

The intensification of agriculture has also resulted in the application of more pesticides and the growing use of genetically modified crops. Most of these carry traits for insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. The perils of the former are clear, though the latter is also a danger – reduced weed populations diminish food resources for animal pollinators, and a lack of data means potential long-term repercussions remain unknown.

Pesticides play a particularly nasty role in the decline of bee populations, with neonicotinoids, the most commonly used ‘systemic’ seed treatments, especially menacing. Instead of being sprayed directly onto plants like other pesticides, neonicotinoids are applied just once to seeds before they are sown.

“As the plant grows, the pesticide moves through the roots, leaves and flowers. When a pest insect feeds on the plant, it is feeding on foliage that is filled with the pesticide”, explained Dr Ben Woodcock of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. “This is, in principal, a great idea; it means rather than inaccurate spraying, you can apply pesticides in a very targeted way. Unfortunately, bees also feed on crops, albeit in a beneficial way rather than as a pest, when they eat the pollen and nectar from the flowers.”

Recent research suggests exposure to neonicotinoid-treated crops does not kill bees immediately, but sub-lethal effects do transpire. “In honeybees, the pesticide disorientates workers, so that they effectively get lost when returning to hives. This has a subtle but cumulative impact on the strength of hives, which can potentially reduce their viability”, Woodcock explained. There is also growing evidence indicating contact with neonicotinoids can reduce the reproductive potential of wild bees.

We found correlative evidence of reductions in species distribution in response to the use of neonicotinoid seed treatment on oilseed rape

“The recent research we undertook used data over a period of 18 years to look at 62 species of wild bee”, said Woodcock. “We found correlative evidence of reductions in species distribution in response to the use of neonicotinoid seed treatment on oilseed rape. Importantly, we show that those species that actively feed on oilseed rape are three times more negatively affected by exposure to neonicotinoids than those species that don’t feed on this crop.”

Pests and pathogens, which are ubiquitous across the world, also pose a problem for bees. Specifically, commercial breeding and the transportation of managed pollinators can transmit parasites, while also increasing the likelihood of alien species and infectious pathogen invasion, which can lead to the extinction of local pollinator species in a region.

Finally, climate change – which casts its shadow over all life on the planet – also affects bees. “Changes in seasonal weather patterns and increased extreme weather events can affect wild pollinators by limiting their ability to forage”, said Perkins.

Potts added: “We’ve got good evidence that each one of these is definitely having a negative impact somewhere, but what is making it a little bit more difficult is that the effects quite often work in tandem, so you might get two of these things, or even three of these things, all working together to be a threat to pollinators. It’s a complex story.”

Behaving like drones
A major problem across the world that continues to worsen with each passing generation, particularly in developed nations, is the disconnect between what we eat and where it comes from. We are so used to taking a convenient trip to the local supermarket to buy plastic-wrapped foods that look all shiny and clean, that we forget the process involved to get to that point. We forget about the land used to grow crops and animal feed, the water required, the lives of the farmers, the delicate balance of natural ecosystems, and the incredibly vital role played by animal pollinators.

“I know from experience that the connection between bees and where our food comes from has been lost”, said Perkins. “I go to schools and ask the young people ‘what do you know about bees?’, and the answer is ‘they sting’ or ‘they make honey’, almost invariably. I don’t know why or how we have got to the point where people have lost the connection with nature and what it provides for us.”

While this missing link from farm to table still exists, there is growing public awareness regarding to the importance of bees to our diets, and governments are beginning to take notice. As always, the first step is research, for little of it exists at present. Then comes international consensus and, finally, action.

“We do have responses from governments and from other sectors of society that are trying to combat these threats, but it’s not enough and it’s not widespread enough to really stop decline”, said Potts.

“I think governments have a real responsibility to help coordinate and reform, as well as legislate for these things. There really are definite opportunities that will work, but there is a question of timeliness. This problem has been around for quite a while, yet only recently do we seem to have understood the extent of it and the real risks associated. As with anything, we don’t want to miss the boat and find out that we’ve gone too far down the line of losing pollinators. So, there is a real call for action now.”

We must find a way to balance the needs of a swelling global population with mitigation of the harm we are causing to the natural environment

The solutions, however, are as complex, if not more so, than the problems themselves. We must find a way to balance the needs of a swelling global population with mitigation of the harm we are causing to the natural environment, while safeguarding it as well. Such a scenario will involve a seismic shift towards sustainable agriculture, including re-diversifying oversimplified agricultural landscapes. Other practices must also be introduced on a worldwide scale, including no-till farming and better crop rotation.

While reintroducing biodiversity will aid in the recovery of pollinator populations, the issue of insecticides and fertilisers remains a challenge, given the swelling pressures on the agricultural industry worldwide. “I think neonicotinoids are an important pesticide. However, the evidence of their impacts on bees suggests that careful consideration needs to be given as to their use”, Woodcock said, adding more targeted strategies, such as focusing on places where pest resistance makes neonicotinoids essential, and easing the impact by creating new foraging and nesting habitats for bees, may be viable strategies that allow their use in a more environmentally sensitive manner.

“Whether such practices are effective would need to be tested. In part, this could only be achieved by long-term monitoring of wild bee populations. I suspect that the current position of denial on one side and accusations on the other is not constructive, and that a more useful dialogue needs to be opened up to investigate management strategies that can accommodate biodiversity and agricultural needs in the same space. Ultimately, modern agriculture cannot be effective without pesticides, so some kind of middle ground needs to be reached.

There is also substantial room for developing current management practices, particularly when it comes to pathogens and parasites. What’s more, the selection of desirable traits in managed bees, while also breeding for genetic diversity, may improve both the size and diversity of populations. Engaging with local communities and bringing them together with stakeholders and scientists to monitor farms and share knowledge is another key factor in better protecting bees.

Hive mind
Despite our nonsensical insistence on causing irreparable damage to the environment, we remain deeply intertwined with nature, and our fate is linked with that of bees. The extinction of any species is a grave sin – a crime that will never be eroded from the pages of history, and never forgiven by future generations. In the event of the extinction of bees, however, there may not be any future generations to look back. Beyond mere monetary loss, in the event of the extinction of bees we are looking at a disaster that threatens the very survival of the human race. So widespread, minute and all-encompassing are animal pollinators, that no man-made replacement could suffice.

Plenty of options have been suggested, but talk is cheap: now is the time to act. We rely on governments to fund initiatives, support scientific studies and encourage sustainable farming practices, but the private sector has a responsibility too. Companies in all industries and of all sizes can make a difference, and so too can the individual. We each have a crucial role to play, even small acts, from planting lavender in our gardens, to making responsible consumer choices, can make a huge difference when it comes to preventing a catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions.

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