Our lives are linked inextricably to bees – they pollinate many of our crops, such as tomatoes, strawberries and apples, meaning we can eat food. They also pollinate cotton plants, giving us the clothes we wear. And of course they also pollinate wildflowers, which aren’t just pretty to look at but also form a crucial part of the wider ecosystem, supporting many other forms of wildlife.
Bees do so much for us and yet we are putting their very existence in danger. As we encroach more and more onto nature’s patch, whether thats turning our gardens into concrete patios, building supermarkets in open spaces or farming intensively with pesticides, we are taking away suitable nesting sites and food for bees. As I wrote in my Intro to Bees post last week, different species of bees need different species of flower to collect their nectar and pollen, depending on the length of their tongues and the shape of the flower. Bees have evolved to allow for all these different species to co-exist due to specialisation, but as we reduce the numbers and types of flowers available to bees, so bee numbers are declining. Bees can’t exist in a mono-culture, and they certainly can’t exist in a concrete jungle, they need a huge variety of flowering plants to survive – variety is the key to life. If the bees die out, us humans will struggle to survive – but if the humans were to disappear, the bees would positively thrive. That makes me feel very sad indeed.
This photo is of some street art by the brilliant London-based Louis Masai. Louis uses his art to promote endangered animals and big conservation issues to a wider audience (totally on board with that!) – more coming on him in my next post.
So what are the problems for bees today? Here are some of the key factors:
Less available food, i.e. wildflowers – this is partly due to modern farming practices (agrochemicals remove all these natural plants, and there has been a decline in hedgerows and generally ‘messy’ areas of wild land) but also in our town parks, gardens and road verges as we try and manage the natural environment around us, and inevitably turn it into concrete or neatly mown lawns. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust estimates that we have lost 97% of our flower-rich grassland since the 1930s.
Agrochemicals used in farming – bees are being poisoned by the chemicals used to increase yield crops in large-scale farming. Most of todays farms use large amounts of pesticides, insecticides and fungicides to help keep ‘control’ of the natural world and produce more and more food. There are some organic farmers out there, but the majority are responsible for a terrifyingly huge decline in not just bees, but all other insects, as well as many bird species and small mammals.
Loss of nesting sites – most honeybees are kept in hives by beekeepers, but bumblebees and solitary bees need to find suitable nests every year. As we manage, tidy and concrete our parks, gardens and wild spaces, bees have less and less space to nest.
Climate change – the most obvious affect of climate change on bees is the timing of plants to flower. As temperatures increase, flowers are blooming earlier in spring, before bees are ready to start pollinating. This also means that plants stop flowering earlier in the year, at a time when bees really need them. This broken timing is not good news for bees – over time they may adjust and adapt, but if numbers are already declining its just another blow for them.
Dave Goulson is a lecturer and researcher at Sussex University in all things bees. He has a great blog you can read, which I did in doing my research for this post, and came across a great one about farming. He challenges the view of the farmer as food-producing ‘hero’, and instead sees modern farming practices as having gone very wrong. But is it the farmers, or is it the CEOs of huge agrochemical companies, persuading farmers that they need all these chemicals to have a successful farm? The evidence behind yield improvement is not made public, nor are the tests into the impact these chemical have on wildlife, so its very hard for a farmer to know whats OK and whats not. The only advice they get is from the sales teams of these agrochemicals company, who of course would happily convince farmers they need huge doses of chemicals to boost their sales and give everyone a bonus at the end of the year. As Goulson says, “Ask yourself this: if you were growing veg in your garden for your family to eat, would you be comfortable spraying them with a cocktail of 20 different insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and molluscicides? If the answer is no, why are you happy buying food from the supermarket?”. We need the agrochecmicals industry to be more transparent and science evidence-led, so that farmers (and us, buying the food) can make informed decisions. Goulson makes another excellent point, one that resonates with the general capitalist culture of today – why do we need to improve yield anyway? Chemicals are used to increase crop growth, but “if one could largely eliminate food waste then every farm in the world could go organic and, even with the concomitant reduction in yield, there would still be more than enough food to go around.” Our modern day problem shouldn’t even be bees dying from pesticides, it should be managing food waste and over-eating into obesity.
Two species of bees have already become extinct in the UK: the cullem’s bumblebee was last recorded in 1941, and the short-haired bumblebee was last recorded in 1988. Many more are hanging on the edge. The problem with bees is EVERYONE’S problem – we all want to continue eating food (right?!) and a lot of us feel a moral and ethical push to simply just not let more animals die out and impoverish our world. Some of the problems are big (those pesky agrochemical companies need a serious ethical reality check, they have so much economic power that they can also control our governments too) but some of them have smaller solutions. Next week’s blog post is all about the many, many things you can do to help bees.
Don’t forget! If you buy any of my Honeycomb Jewellery range between March – June you get some free wildflower seeds, just one of the things you can do to help the bees!
Some good websites if you want to read more: