You must have been living in a cave if you don’t know about the crisis in the world’s bee population. To be fair, most people have heard of this but don’t actually realize the impact that the lack of our favorite little pollinators could have on our food. It’s not as simple as a scarcity of honey, global agriculture relies on bees in a way that many simply don’t realize.
The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) of the United Nations document 100 different crops globally which deliver 90% of the world’s food and of these 100 crops, 71 rely on pollination by bees.
Source: Decline in insect populations, Wikipedia (click to enlarge)
What is pollination?
Pollination is the movement of pollen from flower to flower. Grains are mostly pollinated by the wind but remember, many plants produce flowers as part of their annual growth cycle, for instance, the pretty blossom you see on your apple tree or the coffee plant which produces fragrant white flowers.
Image source: 5 Simple Tips to Turn Your Yard Into Pollinator Paradise (blog.nature.org)
The brighter and sweeter the flower, the more pollinators it will attract – nature knows a thing or two. Pollinators feed on the nectar which the flowers produce brushing against the pollen as they do so. When the pollinator moves on, the pollen is transferred to the stigma of the next plant where it is able to begin the process of seed production.
Why are pollinating insects under threat?
Global warming is one problem but the use of pesticides and in some third world countries, pollution, are two others. The term, Colony Collapse Disorder, first came on the scene roundabout 2006. Climate change and a reduction in the plants that bees want to feed on were highlighted as the principal triggers but neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide used on agricultural crops, have also affected their numbers. In Europe, three neonicotinoid pesticides – clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam – were all banned in 2013.
What does the Varroa mite have to do with it?
As if bees didn’t have enough to contend with, there is also a type of parasite called the Varroa mite. The red/brown mite can only survive and reproduce within a bee colony. This blood-sucking mite shortens the bees’ life and feeds mainly on the larvae and pupae within the hive causing malformations and transmitting viruses.
Image source: Varroa Mites and Associated Honey Bee Diseases More Severe than Previously Thought (entomologytoday.org)
Varroa mite infestation can manifest in all sorts of ways including:-
- Bees that cannot fly only crawl
- Crippled bees
- Impaired flight
- A reduced rate of return to the colony
- Shortened lifespan
- Low weight
Mild Varroa mite infestation can go unnoticed but once the mites have established themselves in a colony, this will ultimately lead to the destruction of the hive if the infestation is not treated. There are measures that can remove the Varroa mite but it is just another challenge that the 21st-century bee population is having to contend with.
Hey honey, take a look at this list of plants under threat
- Fruits – blueberries, elderberries, raspberries, strawberries, and cranberries. Imagine that muffin without the blueberries?!
- Tree fruits – lemons, limes, cherries, plums, apricots, and peaches
- Beans – kidney beans, lima beans, and green beans
- Tea and coffee – both plants require pollinators
- Veggies – turnips, Brussel sprouts (no great loss some might say), cabbage and broccoli
- Pumpkin – imagine Thanksgiving without pumpkins?
- Chocolate – there are no words
- Grapes – this is getting really serious
- Nuts – almonds, cashews, and coconut
Image source: Australian pollinator week (extensionaus.com.au)
But it is more complex than might first appear. Crops like alfalfa and clover rely on pollinators and these are used to feed cattle and other grazers. No crop equals no animals and therefore no beef or dairy products potentially.
Bees are not the only pollinators
Bees are certainly not the only pollinators but they are probably the most important ones and the species under most threat. You can also add to the list, butterflies, moths, wasps, ants, bats and beetles, even rodents.
Become a bee friend
In the United States in 2012, the bee population declined by a massive 60%. US National Agricultural Statistics reveal a decline from around 6 million hives in 1947 to just 2.4 million in 2008.
Organizations like Greenpeace USA put pressure on the international movers and shakers to ditch their agricultural practices and embrace ecological organic farming and to follow the bans of certain pesticides that have taken place across Europe.
Bees need everyone’s help so how can you join the fight to help this struggling pollinator to survive?
- Provide a bee-friendly habitat. Plant sweet and brightly colored flowers to attract bees to your garden. Think blues, yellows and purple so borage and sunflowers are two immediate favorites that come to mind – bees love daisy-shaped flowers
- Bees need a lot of pollen and trees can provide a very good source of food particularly lime and willow
- Bees love herbs so you can help the bee population whilst growing some tasty additions to your kitchen. Aim for lavender, sage, and thyme
- Install your own hive, its not as difficult as you might think and there is a network of friendly beekeepers who can help you get going plus tons of advice online
- Avoid the use of pesticides and chemicals in your garden
- Encourage and support the use of bee-friendly plants in the public areas in your local community or town so parks and green spaces
- Protect swarms which can be collected by a beekeeper and safely removed rather than being destroyed
- Source local honey and support local beekeepers
Next time you take a mouthful of food, remember one in every three bites is only possible because of pollinators. Remember the prophetic words of the great scientist, Albert Einstein, who said of life without insects, “Man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man”.
Resources / Further Reading
Baxter’s Naturals supports a pesticide free approach to agriculture and food production, and produces a fully natural mosquito repellent which you can find here.