Bees are often thought of as picnic pests or adorable mascots but, in reality, they are unsung heroes, contributing to mankind’s survival in many different ways. Seventy of the top 100 food crops – the equivalent of 90% of the world’s nutrition – rely on pollination by bees. Besides crops, approximately 90% of wild plants need animal-mediated pollination of some form to reproduce. One single bee colony can pollinate 300 million flowers each day. The economic benefits derived from bees are estimated to be at €265 billion in Europe and $156 billion in the USA. These economic values don’t even account for the fact that artificial pollination is impossible for many plant species, making their true value priceless. And yet we are losing this priceless contributor to our ecosystem.
For years now, beekeepers and conservationists have been reporting devastating declines in bee populations across the globe. A typical, healthy beehive will lose 5-10% of its worker bees during an average winter, peaking at 15-20% in a particularly bad winter. In the USA, over the past few years, the average overwinter beehive losses have climbed to a staggering 30-50%. In 2006, one beekeeper lost 90% of his bees across 3,000 beehives. In the US, the number of hives nation-wide has declined from 6,000,000 in 1947 to a mere 2,400,000 in 2008. Already, two native bee species in the U.K. have gone extinct and another two are endangered.
We know that the problem is dramatic and widespread, but what is the cause? Somewhat predictably, the usual culprits are to blame: habitat loss and an overuse of pesticides. In the U.K., it is estimated that over 97% of flower-rich grasslands have been repurposed since the 1930s. A similar trend is occurring throughout the developed and developing world. In an effort to help combat this loss of habitat, General Mills’ has funded the “Bring Back the Bees” campaign, sending over 115 million free wildflower seeds across Canada to restore a sustainable level of habitat for bees. Most of the land taken over by humans over the past 100 years isn’t going to be given back, so we must work to make our habitat compatible with bees’. Planting bee friendly gardens is a start.
In terms of chemicals, the use of “neonicotinoids” poses the most significant threat to bee survival. Neonicotinoids are absorbed into plant tissue, which travels up the food chain into bees. While they are believed to be harmless to humans, even low-level exposure can lead to devastating effects on bee colonies.
Pesticide use has led to the recently-coined phenomenon of “Colony Collapse Disorder” or CCD. CCD is diagnosed when nearly all the worker bees in a given colony are wiped out, but leave the queen, larvae, a handful of nurse bees, and an ample supply of honey to maintain it. While occurrences of CCD have been occurring for decades, it had no name and its frequency was relatively rare. In recent years, cases have skyrocketed and the world’s bee population is on its last legs.
The good news is that there is much we can do to help our bee populations return to sustainable levels. A great start would be for government agencies worldwide to ban dangerous pesticides that affect the bee populations. We would also do well, as a society, to stop encroaching on bees – and other species – habitats. Lastly, what every individual reading this can do is to plant wildflowers wherever you are able. With these steps we can save the world’s bees, and with them the huge proportion of the world’s plants and animals that are reliant on bees for survival.