Bees. When we were children we were probably terrified of them, running around with our hands in the air, crying for help from the nearest adult. It is a strange twist of fate then that we now hear shouts for help on behalf of bees themselves.
For almost 20 years scientists have been exploring a strange phenomenon to affect the global bee population. Providing a perfect example of a cooperative working for the good of the whole, each bee community relies on the worker bees to gather nectar and pollen. The aforementioned phenomenon, known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), refers to the abrupt disappearance of these worker bees, leaving the queen bee and larvae to starve to death.
Although the term had yet to be conceived, CCD was first reported by French beekeepers in 1994. Some 12 years later US beekeepers described the same situation, and from this point forward shouts for help have echoed throughout Canada; Europe; and even Asia.
WHY WE SHOULD BEE CONCERNED
Each year hundreds, thousands, if not millions of bees (in total) are gone in an instant. Even though their bodies are never found, we can only assume from those found dead close to, or within, the colonies that all of them die. If another species was disappearing as fast there would have been a lot more interest and action taken immediately; but despite their size, the importance of bees should not be underestimated.
Bees are an important pollinator for agricultural crops, and ecosystems that contain flowering plants. One third of the food we eat depends on insect pollination, which is accomplished almost entirely by bees. They are also an “indicator species”, used by scientists to measure environmental health. Any unusual decline in their population is a sign, from nature, that something isn’t right. At present experts fear CCD is a clear indication we’re heading towards environmental collapse.
WHAT SEEMS TO BEE THE PROBLEM?
It would be great if there was a simple answer, perhaps one cause and therefore one preventative measure or cure to devise. The truth is it’s a complex issue, with a variety of interrelating factors to consider. Regrettably the front-runners in this list, such as agrochemicals; factory farming; and monocultures, have been created by humans.
Agrochemicals: one of the biggest factors is the chemicals used to treat genetically modified and mono-crops. The agrochemical industry is made up of six corporations, who also happen to be the six largest players in the proprietary seed market. BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta all manufacture pesticides and, more specifically, neonicotinoids. These “systemic pesticides”, such as Clothianidin (trade name Poncho) and Imidacloprid (trade name Gaucho), are some of the most commonly used in the world but pose an unacceptably high risk to bees. Applied directly to the seeds – rather than sprayed over the crops – the pesticide is absorbed by the roots and distributed into the stem, leaves, nectar, and pollen. They are poisonous, containing a neurotoxin that affects the insects’ ability to communicate and orientate, prior to paralysis and death.
Factory farming: not unlike the exploitative dairy and egg industries, in factory farms bees are seen only as a honey-making machine. While humans have appropriated honey as food, bees actually make it so that their own colonies can survive through the winter months. Bees have evolved to feed on nectar (as an energy source) and pollen (for protein and other nutrients), both of which are provided in their honey. All of the honey made on these farms is removed and replaced with high fructose corn syrup or another poor substitute. Undoubtedly becoming weaker from poor nutrition, it’s probably no surprise that when investigating bees from colonies experiencing CCD experts noted they had suffered from every known pathogen and disease.
Monocultures: due to the intensification of agricultural systems and a move towards monocultures, there has been a corresponding and deliberate decrease in biodiversity. Bees rely on flower-rich habitats to obtain nectar in order to make honey, and in an absence of wild flowers the bees cannot survive. Furthermore, the ecological balance that would normally exist is disrupted as farms that used to be naturally diverse now grow only one crop. These monocultures contradict the logic of the natural world, requiring human intervention in the form of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Bees aren’t needed to pollinate most of these monocrops (e.g. corn, rice and wheat) but are being killed by the pesticides.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEE-ING EARNEST
Unfortunately, humans are destroying the conditions upon which we, and the bees, depend. With a growing human population, leading to an ever increasing demand placed on food production, we need to be thinking in a sustainable way. If we follow the lead of the bees, working collectively with real conviction, we may be able to save them.
- Plant a garden: support a healthy and sustainable bee population by planting a (window) garden to encourage biodiversity and feed them. If possible plant species that flower at different times so the bees have a constant source of food.
- Cut use of chemicals and toxins: reduce (or eliminate) the use of pesticides used in your garden and ALWAYS avoid neonicotinoids.
- Choose holistic options: if you do care for bees, opt for biodynamic and holistic beekeeping methods. Allow bees to be bees, treating them in a way that doesn’t exploit them.
- Opt for organic produce: organic farming is less chemically-intensive and more sustainable. Where possible purchase organic produce at local farmers markets.
- Lobby and petition government: France, Germany and Italy have paved the way in banning neonicotinoids, where bee populations have begun to recover. Ask the British Government, United States Environmental Protection Agency, and others worldwide to follow in their footsteps.
- Stop consuming the bee’s food: there are plenty of alternatives to honey available on the market, such as agave nectar; brown rice syrup; and maple syrup.