An apocalyptic statement, often attributed to Albert Einstein, claims that if the bees disappeared, 'man would only have four years of life left'. You'd think a premonition this dire would spark immediate action, but despite the devastation of bee populations over the last decade, it seems like the world could care less. So is Einstein right? And if so, what can we do about it?
In the 1950s, Britain had over 50 native bee species, but fast forward half a century and there are just 25 left. In the past three winters, one in three bee colonies have died--a condition known as Colony Collapse Disorder--and wild honeybees are now thought to be almost extinct in the British Isles.
The first obstacle is understanding exactly what's causing such widespread decline. This is tricky, as there is no single answer. The most likely culprits are a loss of habitat (which leads to a lack of good nutrition for the bees as wildflower meadows become crop fields) and disease, which can wipe out whole colonies at once.
But there are other, more subtle issues. The use of insecticide and pesticide is carefully regulated to ensure it doesn't kill honeybees, but scientists are increasingly concerned about the 'sub-lethal' effect such agents are having--while they don't kill instantly, there is evidence to suggest that they change the bees' behaviour, or weaken their immune system. One study found that bees who ate pollen with fungicides in it were two times more likely to get diseased than those who hadn't. This is particularly concerning as fungicides have always been considered safe for bees. Similarly, pesticides have been shown to make worker honeybees smaller, which could have an effect on their ability as pollinators.
What's the sting?
So why is this such a problem? Pesticides and fungicides are vital for the health of crops, and with an ever-growing global population, we need as much food as possible. But bees can help with this: an estimated 1/3 of human diet would be affected if there were no bees to pollinate--everything from apples to almonds are reliant on them.
In fact, the bees' service as pollinators was estimated at being worth £200 million to the UK economy in 2007, with a retail value closer to £1 billion. Without bees, the only other way to pollinate an area is to employ people to go around with feather dusters, brushing pollen on to plants--a practice that is already in place in areas of China where bees have gone extinct. Given that a single hive of 50,000 bees can pollinate over half a million plants in a day, it would cost a huge amount to employ people to do the same job, and food prices would increase dramatically.
To Bee or not to Bee
With so much at stake, it might seem like too big a task for small-scale efforts to make a difference. However, while some of the advice might be a little impractical (becoming a beekeeper can be quite time-consuming!) there are ways you can help the honeybee. Using wildflowers in your garden--particularly a selection that flower at different times of the year--will provide nearby bees with great nutrition, and look good, too. As well as this, don't use pesticides in your garden--physical barriers like collars around your plants and companion planting (placing insect-repelling plants alongside your usual varieties) work just as well. Finally, supporting your local bee communities can be a great way of helping commercial beekeepers stay in business, and this can be as easy as buying local honey. It only takes a small effort to help protect these amazing insects, but doing so will make a big difference for the future.
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