Where Have All Our Bees Gone?


Sep 10, 2014 by British Blog

In the 1950s there were more than 50 species of native British bee, now there are just 25 - and three of those are nearly extinct. Furthermore, the UK has the second-lowest number of honeybees in Europe. In the US, the number of managed beehives more than halved between 1945 and 2007. So where are all the bees going, and why does it matter?



The main reason to be concerned about bee numbers is simple - pollination. Bees feed as they pollinate: they get their protein from pollen and carbohydrates from nectar.

Worldwide more than a third of all crops depend on bees for pollination, and this need is increasing. In Europe, for example, many people are looking to bio-fuels as an alternative (albeit a controversial one) to fossil fuels and of course, the basic materials for bio-fuels are plants, which have to be grown and pollinated - by bees.

In other words, if humans are to eat the range of foods they currently enjoy, and grow plants for other purposes, they need bees. Without bees, the diversity of food will drop considerably, and bio-fuels will not be a realistic proposition. That is before any thought of the ecological and environmental impacts, which may be considerable. Humans simply need bees.



Bees are admirable insects. Most of the world's 20,000 species of bee are quiet, unsociable things, often living alone and going quietly about their lives. Honeybees are the major exception: they live amazingly organised social lives, in colonies of around 50,000.

Each individual honeybee tends to act for the greater good of the group, for example by removing sick bees to protect the health of the group, and by collecting and applying to the hive plant saps (known as propolis) which have antiseptic and protective qualities to prevent infection and purification within the hive. Of course, they also produce honey.



There is no real consensus about the cause of bees' decline, but plausible suggestions include:

Changes in farming practices, especially the replacement of natural fertilisers with synthetics. Historically, flowering plants were used to enhance soil quality and bees fed on these. Now, there are no such flowers for the bees, and the problem is compounded when an area is also being used to intensively farm crops that bees do not feed on.

Neonicotinoid insecticides. When ingested by bees, these act as neurotoxins and either prove fatal, or render bees so confused they are unable to get back to the hive.

Natural parasites and disease. Bees are particularly susceptible to the varroa destructor mite, which breaks down the insect's immune system and releases viruses.



What will solve the bee crisis? In an ideal world, farming would adopt less destructive practices and in particular greatly reduce its use of synthetic fertilisers and insecticides.

That, of course, is a political issue. However, there is a simple step that individuals can take, namely to grow bee-friendly plants and flowers, organically. In the UK, suitable candidates include rhododendron, poppies and buddleia. This may not be, in itself, a huge step: but if everybody does it, if everybody copies the honeybee and acts for the greater good of the community, then it really will make a difference.