Bees are incredible! During my research I have discovered so many amazing facts about bees that I had no idea about. There are 20,000 species of bee; the common honeybee is just one of them. They don’t all live in hives; some bees are a solitary species. They are also quite intelligent; honey bees perform a “waggle dance” to communicate the direction and distance of where the nectar is to each other. But even more impressively, when researchers put European and Asiatic honey bees in the same hive, the Asiatic bees were able to translate the dancing language of the Europeans! They’re efficient builders too. Thomas Hales wrote a 19 page mathematical proof showing that of all possible structures, the hexagon uses the least amount of wax; a conjecture made since ancient Greek times.
They are also vital to our survival as a species. Of the 100 crops that make up 90% of our consumption (that’s really not many species, we should really branch out and try new foods), 71 rely on pollination from bees. Though I hate to sully this discussion with the egotistical human need to put a monetary value on everything, I will say that it is estimated that bees contribute $217 billion to the global economy. But when I say that underneath the statement that 2/3 of the crops we eat rely on pollination from bees, that murky and questionably-calculated value is rather unimportant. We would struggle to survive as a species without this one insect. And the bees are dying.
In Europe, one in ten species face extinction. In the United States of America, the period from April 2014-April 2015 saw a 42.1% decline in managed colonies, up from 34.2% the previous year. This trend is repeated worldwide and is a huge concern; I should hope that this article is not the first you have heard about the colony collapse of beehives. But the question that is trying to be answered is: why?
There is no single reason, but many reasons, that are cited as being responsible for the decline in bee populations. Pests such as the wasp and wax moth are a concern and require controlling measures from bee keepers, but they have been around forever and so can hardly account for such dramatic changes in the bee population. There is a long list of diseases that affect the honey bee, but unless you are in disease control there is little we can do except follow the advice given by experts. Loss of forage and habitat is a huge concern. We are losing flowers everywhere, with the roadside being the last refuge for many wildflowers. Intensive agriculture, the spread of monocultures, and loss of gardens as property is continually subdivided to accommodate increasingly dense populations in urban environments are all destroying the places that bees live and forage in for nectar. But amongst all this, there is a growing body of evidence that pesticides are largely responsible for the reduction in bee populations.
Neonicotinoid pesticides are a relatively new class of insecticides that affect the central nervous system of insects resulting in paralysis and death. These pesticides are incredibly controversial and there are many conflicting claims about their effect on bee populations. However, as far as I can tell, the people who claim these pesticides are a large factor in bee decline tend to be scientists from universities, and those who claim that these pesticides are of no consequence to bee health tend to be government officials or opining individuals. You should definitely do a bit of digging for yourself and not just take my word for it, but on balance of the amount of reading I have done so far I find myself being persuaded that these pesticides are indeed affecting bees. A few articles that are representative of this and cite actual scientific studies can be found on The Guardian website. Given that these pesticides are manufactured by Bayer and Syngenta, there is a very large lobbying influence on government action that is not to be discounted. Issues surrounding this include the governments citing studies that have not been published in peer-reviewed journals and that have been rejected by the EU’s safety authority as evidence for the safety of these insecticides. The European Union ban on neonicotinoid pesticides in 2013 is challenged at the moment in the United Kingdom, but this challenge has not been without controversy, with claims of gagging of government agencies to silence their advice not to lift the ban. With our food production being so reliant on bees (which we should probably start to address by diversifying our diets), we can only continue to put pressure on our governments to put the welfare of our food sources, and by extension the bees, before economic interests or special interests from multi-nationals.
There is a wealth of reading to be done on this topic, and you may come out of it feeling more confused than when you started. But if you are discerning in your sources and able to identify reliable experts it is possible to form a considered opinion on this issue. In the meantime, perhaps you might like to plant more bee-friendly flowers in your garden. Or if you are really adventurous, you could join the growing urban beekeeping movement! Whatever you decide, I hope you are a bit more mindful and appreciative of the glorious bees. And make sure you follow their lead and stop and smell the flowers every once in a while.