The humble honey bee, so small and insignificant. Yet could the possible extinction of this tiny creature have a severe and profound impact on our future?
Bee populations have been slowly dwindling for decades, threatened by a variety of different environmental adversaries, yet little is being done to recognise the profound impact their extinction would have on agriculture, our food supplies and our lives.
The situation is becoming critical, with colonies dying off at frightening rates: since 2007, an average of 30% of all colonies have died every winter in the United States, a loss which is about twice what U.S. beekeepers would consider to be economically tolerable, and things are getting progressively worse. In the winter of 2012-13, 29% of all colonies died in Canada and 20% died in Europe.
What enemies are killing our bee populations?
Colonies of bees have fallen foul of many different factors, many of which are man-made. Scientists, consumer groups and bee keepers say the devastating rate of bee deaths is partly due to the increasing use of pesticides sold by agrichemical companies to boost yields of staple crops such as corn. Flowers can become contaminated with insecticides that can kill bees directly or lead to chronic, debilitating effects on their health.
Although most insecticides can directly kill bees, one class of insecticides, known as the neonicotinoids, has been identified as a particularly lethal threat as they are "systemic"pesticides that are applied to seeds so that the chemical spreads within the plants. The active ingredients can move into the pollen and nectar of treated flowering plants thereby killing a larger number of bees over a longer period.
Even if bees manage to survive exposure to pesticides, their ability to collect pollen becomes compromised. Bumblebees exposed to controversial pesticides collect just half the pollen they would otherwise harvest, according to new research, depriving their growing young of their only source of protein.
"Pollen is the only source of protein that bees have, and it is vital for rearing their young," said Professor Dave Goulson, at the University of Sussex and who led the study. "Collecting it is fiddly, slow work for the bees and intoxicated bees become much worse at it. Without much pollen, nests will inevitably struggle."
Human intervention has also indirectly contributed to other foes, as the increase in global trade and transportation has inadvertently allowed blood-sucking parasites, viruses and other bee pathogens to be transmitted to bees across the world.
So why are bees so important to us?
There are 4000 species of bees in North America alone, and various other insect pollinators, yet we have become heavily reliant on one single species: the honey bee.
Plant gardens and wildflowers thrive on the input from a variety of different native pollinators, ranging from furry buzzing bumble bees, to leaf cutters, and delicate, fluttering butterflies, but when it comes to large-scale crops, pollination is very specific.
A very large percentage of our food supplies require pollination by insects, but honeybees are responsible for the majority of this process, particularly in the United States where crops are grown in massive quantities. Globally, of the 100 or so crop species that provide 90% of our food supply, 71% are pollinated by a variety of bee. In the U.S. alone, an estimated $16 billion rests on the successful pollination of food crops by bees and, overall, insect pollinators contribute approximately $29 billion to U.S. farming income.
Consequently, commercial honeybee populations are carefully managed, with hives of worker bees transported over long distances to wherever there is a need for their pollinating services.
The loss of the honeybee would certainly spell disaster in farming, however other species are still considered to be important pollinators, and are equally as threatened:
A global study of bees in Europe by the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) identified that sixteen of 68 bumblebee species were in steep decline.
“Of the five most important insect pollinators of European crops, three are bumblebee species,” said the IUCN, which groups governments, scientists and conservation groups.“Together with other pollinators, bumblebees contribute more than 22 billion euros ($30.35 billion) to European agriculture a year.”
Certain varieties of bumblebees are also commercially bred to pollinate tomatoes, peppers and aubergines in greenhouses, and they form an important part of the global eco-system.
What would happen if our bee populations were totally extinguished?
Various areas across the globe have managed to survive without bees populations in the past, but today's intensive and extensive farming programmes rely heavily on the contribution of bee pollination to ensure the success of their crops.
Some areas of the world are already learning to cope without bees: insecticides have killed all of the bees in the Sichuan Province in China, so human replacements, known as "bee-men", are having to carry out pollination tasks themselves.
The loss of the bees in this area was a perfect illustration of what happens when man messes with the natural eco-balance: Chinese growers were requested to cull sparrows as they were allegedly “stealing” grain, which, in turn, led to the proliferation of insects — and, eventually, to the mass spraying of insecticides that killed off the entire bee population.
It is no easy task to replace the input of such skilled insect pollinators with human equivalents, and it can be a meticulous and time-consuming endeavour:
“Hand-pollination requires a large workforce and bees understand plants a lot better than humans,” explained Zhen Jiandong, a human pollinator of some 20 years' experience.
Hand-pollination is carried out using a tool called a shaft, at the end of which there is either a cigarette filter or the tip of an eraser pen. The “bee-men" and "bee-women" carry around their necks a small chewing-gum box filled with the pollen they gathered from other apple trees' flowers, before drying it out in the sun and grinding it.
Pollen can also be purchased from middlemen, but the powder can be of low quality as pollen loses its fertility very quickly.
Despite their obvious negative impact on bee populations, Chinese farmers continue with their liberal use of insecticides, rendering it impossible to re-introduce bees into the area.
"If the bees pollinated here, they would die," Jiandong commented bleakly.
The loss of the bee would not just affect our crop supplies, but would have more far-reaching effects on our culture. The bee has played a significant role in the formation of many cultures in history, with paintings from prehistory confirming that the Bee has been honored and revered for tens of thousands of years. Hunting honey was an important pursuit for ancient peoples, and in the Cave of the Spider near Valencia Spain, a 15,000 year old painting illustrates how far pre-historic man would go to collect its sweet bounty, depicting a figure about to risk his life to extract honey from a precarious cliff-side. The ancient Egyptians recognised the agricultural, nutritional, medicinal and ritualistic value of the Bee, and offerings of honey were often presented as sacred offerings to their gods. The Mayans also considered honey to be "the food of the gods" and the Bee was considered to be a sacred insect, bridging the gap between the natural world and the spirit world.
Andrew Gough, Andrew Gough, editor of The Heretic Magazine , investigator of historical conundrums, and a regular here on Unknown Country, has a personal interest in the honeybee and has extensively researched its historical and current significance to Man. He summed up his feelings to Unknown Country:
"The potential extinction of the bumblebee is a sad but distinct reality, and while the economic impact of its demise would devastate the world economy, the loss of a remarkable ally to humankind; one that has nurtured the planet for over 100 million years, would be a tragedy of unspeakable and unforgivable proportions."
So can we do anything to prevent the almost certain extinction of honeybee?
Governments are now recognising the plight of the bee and the potential impact of its permanent demise on the future of mankind: a two-year EU ban of three neonicotinoids has now been implemented, following confirmation by scientific studies that that showed how they harmed honey and bumblebees.
The European Union’s top environment official said the 28-nation bloc was taking action to improve the situation.
“The EU recently banned or restricted the use of certain pesticides that are dangerous to bees and is funding research into status of pollinators,” said EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potoċnik in a statement.“However, efforts clearly need to be scaled up,” he added.
There is hope, as even small individual actions, can lead to positive change that could help to save the bee population. We can help by planting flowers along crop borders, in land unprofitable for crop production, along roadsides, power line corridors and in city lawns. The best things to plant are native flowering plants from your own region, or clover, alfalfa or other flowering cover crops that replenish soil nutrients and prevent erosion.
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