The humble bee could shortly become extinct if we do not change our agricultural ways. And because they pollinate most of our major food plants, the disappearance of the bee will be a calamity to humans too.
THE SWEET SCENT of apple blossom pervades the morning air. A warm, gentle breeze carries the soft deep drone of an army of Bees, as they go about their daily ritual. Their base note mingles with a cacophony of sound from a myriad of bird song, and the rustle of newly unfurled leaves caught in the rising spirals of air. Celebrating the dawn of spring, Nature, abundant, fertile, healthy and strong, gives birth to another cycle of life on Earth, where a paradise of beauty, harmony, and untold riches supports an infinite range of lives, beyond mortal comprehension.
20,000 years ago, Homo sapiens acknowledged the importance of the bee with cave drawings of his hunts for honey. So precious was the life giving nectar and the subsequent fertility provided by these little creatures that they were revered by Celts, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Hindus and even the Essenes! From India, spreading throughout the globe, folklore was born and a multitude of religions understood the value of the humble bee. The Earth Goddess Demeter, goddess of fertility, and provider of abundant crops; Aphrodite Goddess of love; And the tears of the sun God Ra, giver of life and rebirth, have all been represented by the complex life-giving studious bee.
So why is it that the ancients were so aware of the vital importance of the bee, when today in our technologically advanced, education rich, civilised world, its demise is going largely unnoticed and its significance dangerously unappreciated?
Hive of industry
Beeswax, honey, pollen, royal jelly and propolis are all products of the industrious bee. The market value of these commodities in the UK alone is worth over £1 billion a year, whilst in the rest of the world it is estimated to be worth at least £30 billion. However the real value to the planet is beyond any monetary gain as the bees' daily sojourn from one plant to another allows the pollination of 35% of the world's plants.
So much of our planets flora and fauna depends on the specific adaptations of the estimated 20,000 bee species. This evolutionary process has gone hand in hand alongside our planets plethora of bright flowering plants allowing the setting of an abundance of fruit and seed. This exchange of food for fertility guarantees a legacy of sustenance for future generations. For instance some bees have developed long tongues to reach deep into the throat of a foxglove for its nectar, or a shorter tongue adapted to suit the delicate openings of old English lavender. Whatever the requirement, the bee has developed a solution to connect up the food chain by delivering the tiny grains of pollen which cling to its fuzzy little body attracted by its electrostatic charge. 100 million years of evolution has allowed this process to develop, adapt and specialise to a multitude of environments and plant species.
Of the 20,000 bees species it is estimated that 17,000 are Solitary bees, (usually oligoleges), which means that they only gather pollen from one or just a few species of plants.
This behaviour means that it is perfect for crop pollination as they are generally more effective than pretty much any other pollinating insect. However this specialist adaptation means they are especially vulnerable if their food supply is restricted or destroyed.
Sadly, a few years back Britain had over 25 types of bumble bee. Three of which have now disappeared, presumably extinct, whilst seven more are on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UKBap), in an attempt to save them from extinction.
Across the globe, both honey bee and bumble bees are suffering the same plight, bombarded by a myriad of problems threatening to consume the last of the species. This little miracle of nature, mildly going about fulfilling its destiny of evolution is on the brink of global extinction, and with its demise goes hand in hand, our own.
Einstein is reported to have said "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."
Poisoned by our pesticides, made homeless by our farming methods, driven out of its existing habitats by rising global temperatures, the bee has become victim to pest and disease alike, and is dying out in numbers that are reminiscent of some biblical plague in its severity.
And it's not just the honey or bumble bee which is under threat. Osmia aglaia is an amazing looking emerald green bee, which apparently will increase the weight of the fruit yield of the flowers visited by a whopping 30% over its competitors! Whilst Carpenter bees and Gourd bees are so efficient in their pollination of the female flower that they fully fertilise the plant after approximately just one visit as opposed to nearly 3 and a half visits by the honey bee. However, of the 17,000 solitary bees that have been catalogued, over 1000 species are on the verge of extinction.
Although there are other insects that pollinate our world, to lose such an enormous amount of our natural world would have devastating repercussions to us and the remaining ecosystem.
The Demise of the Bee
The Varroa mite, is a blood sucking relative of the tick. It began its journey in the east, from Mongolia and China and had developed to exploit its host, apis cerana, over millions of years, with the consequence that the little bee from the east had developed defences that keep the mites in check without too much trouble. However when it contaminated the hives transported over from the west over 100 years ago the knock on effects have been devastating. Today only Australia has not been decimated by the mite.
Unfortunately, it is not this parasite alone which has caused the horrendous devastation of our worlds bees. A virus known as Acute paralysis virus (APV) is being transmitted by the mites vampiric activities. And sadly due to a limited genetic adaptation system the bee has very little ability to fight off any virus. Even worse is the fact that another 13 devastating honeybee viruses are now being transmitted from one bee to another by the mite. Basically, the honey bee is overwhelmed by such a variety of diseases thanks to this parasite, that it is little wonder that there is a possibility of global extinction.
Not surprisingly, the use of Varroa killing chemicals such as pyrethroids and a cocktail of lethal chemicals such as organophosphates have stopped working as the mites have developed immunity to the substance.
To make matters worse a mysterious but equally deadly bee killer known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) appears to be putting the final nail in the coffin. Although many theories abound, no one is sure what is causing the mass disappearance of whole colonies of bees. Another parasite, Nosema ceranae, which is a strong resilient version of Nosema apis has appeared recently throughout Europe. It appears to attack the internal organs of the bees, destroying whole colonies in a devastatingly short period of time.
GM sweet corn could be another possible culprit of CCD, says Professor Hans-Heinrich Kaatz who directed a study of the effects of pollen collected from a GM maize on bees at Halle University (Germany). He suggests that a bacterial toxin from the corn may weaken the intestines of exposed bees allowing entry for parasites. Although he confesses he doesn't know for sure.
For well over 50 years now, mankind has been gambling with its health and that of the planets. It does not take much in the way of research to discover that our trust in our scientists' creation of useful chemicals to help improve our lives has often been seriously misplaced. With the banning of DDT, PCB's, and a vast number of organo-phosphates, we are now told that it is time to choose safer alternatives.
The pesticide Penncap–M contains methyl parathion, and is used on a range of orchard trees, including apples, pears, grapes and citrus fruit. Its active ingredient resembles pollen and has been carried back to the hive where it is eaten and kills both the bee brood and adult alike. Despite instructions not to use on flowering plants, watercourses and away from foraging bees, its effects have cost bee keepers dearly.
Bob Harvey in New Jersey, USA, lost approximately 750 of his 3000 colonies as a result of misuse of the pesticide. The newer range of organophosphates known as neonics, are just as deadly. Unfortunately it took a while to be detected as a possible culprit of CCD. The reason for this is the time delay between applying the chemical and the resulting bee deaths.
One farmer, Chris Charles from North Dakota, has been keeping bees since the age of nine and spends a portion of every day seven days a week, looking after his hives. He claims that he lost 30,000 colonies and like other beekeeping neighbours, he says he has scientific evidence that these insecticides are killing his bees.
High concentrates of Imidacloprid, the active ingredient in "Bayers Gaucho", have been found in the pollen gathered from oilseed rape whose seeds were treated. "It also showed up in the wax, honey and dead bees collected over a three year period." Both France and Germany have been trying to get the use of the chemical banned following a long-running battle by the beekeepers against the makers of the insecticide, which many blame for the decimation of bee populations.
CCD appears to have somehow entered the food chain from foraging bees and is then passed on by visits from subsequent bees, most probably aided by our exploitive methods and global reliance on the mono culture system of farming.
Naturally a bee's territory covers approximately only three to four miles. However going against a bee's evolution they are now being transported around the globe with devastating consequences. One clear example of this is in the case of California's Almond growing Industry. 40 billion bees, (half the population of the honey bee in the U.S.) are transported every February to pollinate the local orchards in Central Valley.
Now bees, like humans, have a very precise body clock which if tampered with causes stress. Therefore by removing the hives from their original sites throughout the country and transporting them, often over vast distances on a journey which may take two or three days, deprives them of sleep and natural light. This leaves them immune compromised, increasing the likelihood of the colonies contracting parasitic pests and diseases. Once they have arrived, they are released in a monoculture environment of millions of acres of cloned specialised and therefore weakened trees, which have been bombarded with a cocktail of chemical poisons, further putting the bees at risk to any opportunistic pathogen or life-form.
The fact that these colonies are mixing from all over the U.S. ensures that any sick bees will be able to infect the widest number of hives possible, and then, just a few weeks later the newly infected bees are taken back to their homes to allow the local population to become infected too! Frighteningly, deaths of hives in some parts of the U.S. are now running at 90%!
That humans have taken on the role as parasite, there is no doubt. We are taking the very food that is needed for the bee's survival and have been replacing it with nutritionally poor artificial substitutes (such as nutrient-deficient sugar solutions). We are destroying their natural habitat and pollen supply with a combination of mono culture, pesticides, GM plants and pollution. The result is weak bees, vulnerable to a combination of parasites, diseases and rapidly changing climate conditions.
Well-fed bees naturally provide the best possible chance of good health and a strong immune system. Eric Mussen from the University of California believes that changing climate patterns are lowering the quality of the food that bees are consuming. With the severe drought that struck much of the USA in 2006, honey production was noted as being one of the lowest on record. This meant that when the bees were ready for winter they were under nourished with very little in the way of stores of honey, despite being fed human made bee supplements (often derived from soya) that can never match up to the full larder that nature should have provided. The result? When spring arrived, many, many thousands of colonies starved to death.
The genus Apis rely on a complex system evolved over millions of years to run their colonies, navigate their way home, nurture, protect and nourish their species. They have a social order which is beyond compare, and offers them the best possible chance of survival.
Today the work of the bee fertilises at least, 90 commercial crops worldwide, including a multitude of nuts, a variety of beans including soya, and most fruit and vegetables including apples, onions, carrots, broccoli, sunflowers, oranges, strawberries peaches, melons, alfalfa maize and rapeseed (often used for fodder crops for meat production).This means that basically all meat and dairy products, vegetables and most fruit except bananas and pineapples would disappear from our diet. Even chocolate and coffee rely on bee pollination!
Then there is the huge range of wild and cultivated garden plants, supporting the rest of our eco system, plants such as the poppy, which are invaluable for its medicinal properties; Digitalis (foxglove) which is used for a variety of heart conditions, including atrial fibrillation, atrial flutter and heart failure plus a cornucopia of blood pressure, anti cancer, depression medicines to name but a few, not forgetting the contribution given by these plants to the multi-million dollar complimentary medicine industry.
Some areas of our food industry are now being shaken by the rapidly diminishing availability of supplies. So concerned are some companies involved in the dairy industry that the Ice Cream company Haagen Dazs have invested £125,000 into two universities to help find a way of eliminating CCD, which is threatening the Ice cream industry. Haagen Dazs products use many fruits and nut varieties that are reliant on bees. Out of over 60 varieties of ice cream products, 25 need the help of bees to pollinate their crops.
One marketing strategy to boost the need of the bee is the release in March of Vanilla-honey flavour ice cream whose profits are being used to fund research into protecting the disappearing honey bee populations. They also have a supporting website called www.helpthehoneybees.com.
Whilst the government baulks at putting £4 million into researching the disappearing bee population, it may be the private sector under pressure from its consumers and share holders, that could hold the key to our future.
Eight years left
Lord Rooker who was the food and farming minister for the UK was so concerned about the plight of the nations bees, said, that in his opinion we had only 10 years left before our honeybees would become extinct! That was in 2007!
As a result of this decimation in the bee population, we have seen the rise of the "human bee": painstakingly laborious hand pollination.
China has had to pay the price of over use of pesticides the hard way, as after uncontrolled pesticide use in the 1980s the province of Sichuan with its millions of pear trees that cover the mountain ranges, are all devoid of any signs of bee life. The result is the job of pollination of the orchards has to be done by hand. Every male anther of the pear blossom on every tree is coerced into giving up its precious pollen grains by virtue of a bamboo pole with a feather at the end. Everybody, young or old, child or grandparent has to set out on the relentless task of first collecting the grains into a container, then having dried out the contents over a couple of days, they have to go back out and deposit the pollen back onto the female stigmas of the flowers. If the bees hadn't all died out, only one colony would have managed to fertilise millions of flowers in just a few days.
Reversing the destruction of natural habitat is vital in the lessons we must learn if we are going to save the bee.
Reclaiming the Land
More than a third of the viable land mass of this planet is devoted to human food production. This includes food production of grazing land for meat as well as the production of crops. However every year 7% of that precious commodity is lost due to poor farming techniques, climate change etc.
Closer to home the devastation wreaked by our intense food production methods has resulted in us losing "160,000 kilometres of hedgerow, since the war" according to Dr Chris O'Toole, director of the bee biology unit at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Obviously a good deal of habitat and excellent nutritional food for a host of creatures has been lost with it. Replacing our native hedgerows immediately is one step towards changing the current path of global famine which we are set upon.
It is important to allow natural areas of wilderness to grow unmolested, without the constant cutting and spraying back of roadside verges (often when the native plants are in flower will help increase habitat and food). We need to encourage and support local bees and beekeepers, and pressure to control the movement and ban the import of bees.
Hassle your Member of Parliament or Congressman. Write to your local authority. We need legislation to ensure that hedgerows are replanted that roadsides are not cutback or sprayed and destroyed. Now!
Allow biodiversity to flourish and move our intensive farming techniques away from monoculture with it needs for artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. This will encourage our native flora and fauna to flourish, each one supporting a whole host of other beneficial species for the environment.
Basically we all need to encourage wild bees. We can do this by filling your garden with bee friendly plants, or take on an allotment, start up a local group, gen up on info about bees and tell people, give talks, hand out information.
Plant red clover (Trifolium pratense) and bird's-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) in your lawns and allow it to flower, or better still, make a wild flower meadow in your garden. Try to have at least two types of bee loving plants in flower at any one time during the bee season. March to September.
Bluebell, bugle, crab apple, daffodil, flowering cherry, currant, forget-me-not, hawthorn, hellebore, pulmonaria, pussy willow, rosemary, viburnum, thrift (Armeria maritima)
Aquilegia, astilbe, campanula, comfrey, everlasting sweet pea (Lathyrus latifolius), fennel, foxglove, geranium, potentilla, snapdragon, stachys, teasel, thyme, verbascum
Angelica, aster, buddleia, cardoon, cornflower, dahlia (single-flowered), delphinium, eryngium, fuchsia, globe thistle, heather, ivy, lavender, penstemon, scabious, sedum, Verbena
Other flowering plants to attract bees
Monkshood, Bugle, Kidney vetch, Aquilegia, Borage, Greater knapweed, Cotoneaster, Foxglove, Teasel, Viper's bugloss, Geranium, Bluebell, White deadnettle, Honeysuckle, Hollyhock,Bird's foot trefoil, Lupin, Mint, Yellow rattle, Rosemary, Bramble, Sage, Comfrey, Thyme, Red clover, White clover, Agastache, Alyssum, Anchusa, Japanese anemone, Kidney vetch, Thrift, Aubrieta, Borage, Bellflower, Cornflower, Greater knapweed, Clarkia, Cosmos, Cotoneaster, Globe Artichoke, Foxglove, Teasel, Leopard's bane, Globe Thistle, Viper's bugloss, Fleabane, Sea holly, Wallflower, Californian poppy, Cranesbill, Geum, Gypsophila, Helenium, Sunflower, Heliotrope, Hellebores, Candytuft, White deadnettle, Liatris, Poached egg plant, Honeysuckle, Bird's foot trefoil, Honesty, Lupin, Apple, Mint, Monarda, Forget-me-not, Catmint, Love-in-the-mist, Oriental poppy, Jacob's ladder, Yellow rattle, Rosemary, Rudbeckia, Scabiosa, Sidalcea, Golden Rod, Lambs' ears, White clover, Verbena, Zinnia
Tree and hedgerow plants for bees
Alder, Common, Ash, Berberis, Blackthorn, Buckthorn, Sea, Buddleia, bird cherry, Hazel, Holly, Lilac, Buddleia, Cotoneaster, Elaeagnus, Escallonia, Gorse, Lilac, broad leafed lime, Lonicera pileata, Mountain Ash, Purple-leaved Bird Cherry, Pyracantha, Snowberry, Spindle, Viburnum, Yew.
In these days of hard recession extra money is hard to find but if everyone bought organic/eco friendly products every fourth or fifth purchase then the difference would be phenomenal and ultimately bring the prices down. Even the occasional purchase, if we all do it, will help. We must support organic farming over conventional farming. Help ensure that monoculture is replaced with the sensible use of mixed crops, and poly-culture. If we do, then the result is more jobs, less pollution, hope for our bees and our own future.
Buy local produce: we have seen that what we buy affects both the local and global community. Buying soya milk from South America is causing the great Savannahs of wild grasses to be ploughed up for miles of monoculture soya beans as we turn our diet away from beef cattle. This is aiding the destruction of the bee population of this great Continent.
Join one of the local wildlife protection organisations or Bee Charities such as the bumblebee conservation trust, www.bumblebeeconservationtrust.co.uk
Support bee friendly companies
Make or buy Bee boxes, and leave natural habitats available for our native wildlife to flourish.
In my opinion, we are running out of time. Politicians are not moving fast enough to even begin to compete with the danger we are all facing. We need native wild species planted now. The only way that we can do this is by careful considered respectful guerilla-planting. That is finding any suitable patch of wasteland and both urban and in the country and seeding it with NATIVE bee supporting plants. The same goes for trees and hedgerows. If you can get the support of your local authority, then all well and good, but remember that it's your planet and your future at stake, and we do not have any more time on our side. Act now.
Make other people aware of the bees' plight, create stickers, posters, talk in local schools if you have the opportunity. Get the local schools to design posters, Run competitions. Basically get active, join existing organisations and get your community involved.
There are organisations out there that are actively encouraging the use of Land to be shared. If you have any land which you would like to share or you would like to use some land that is going spare, then contact www.yours2share.com or www.landshare.net and get together with other like-minded people and make a difference, using any or all of the above suggestions.
Years ago, several queen bees derived from experiments to cross European and African honey bees, escaped a laboratory in South America and spread throughout the Continent. The result was the hybrid Africanized bee, now known as the killer bee. The truth is that when we try and better nature she comes up with a more powerful solution.
Having not yet learned from our constant tampering, there are moves afoot to genetically engineer a "super-bee" which will be resistant to the myriad of death threatening problems that face our world population of bees. The very real danger of the super-bee is that nature will match it with a superbug. What we must do to survive is respect nature, and learn that we are a part of her rich tapestry, not her owner.
I believe that the reasons that bees and therefore humanity and all life on Earth is in immediate danger is because of humans continued ill-founded view of the world and their place in it. Humans cause the same mass destruction in all walks of life because, for too long now, we have as a race seen the world as ours to use, abuse and take without consequence or retribution; humans, animals, plants insect and minerals have been there at our disposal. These resources appeared infinite in abundance, so therefore we do not give the respect to our planet that is deserved. Only now are we realizing the consequences of our hubris.
Sadly we have treated everything as a saleable commodity and all life as a machine in which to gain power and get rich. The bee is no exception. It has been used and worked to maximum capacity without heeding the warning signs that it was under severe stress.
Jeff Pettis, co-ordinator of a five year programme set up to improve honeybee health and survival for the USDA, has concentrated his efforts firstly on viruses, and then on chemicals and pesticides. He is adamant that we have to change our bee keeping habits. "We're controlling too many bee ailments with drugs. Mites are becoming resistant. We need more ecologically friendly controls for both varroa and nosema, and a more organic style of beekeeping."
We should be encouraging local bees, (which we can all do) by providing, replacing and extending their food and habitat. Bee keepers NEED our help fast. We CANNOT factory farm bees (or indeed any other species if we are to survive). We must stop seeing our planet as a commodity to be exploited, and instead alter our farming methods to sustainable biodiversity-friendly poly-culture, moving away from monoculture and the subsequent reliance on chemicals or GM crops.
A dear friend of mine keeps bees and over the last 10 years has resorted to using homoeopathic remedies to keep his bees healthy. He uses staphysagria to combat parasites, thuja for viruses and a combination of natural remedies to boost his hives. There is hope out there and we can all make a difference. Humanity is incredibly resourceful, but we also seem to be inherently lazy as a species. We were bound to leave it to the last minute before trying to fix the problem.
That last minute is right NOW, so please let's get together and making the necessary changes.
Copyright © 2009 Fionna Johnson