A recent purchase of a (very adorable) t-shirt reading “plant trees, save the bees”, got me thinking: we all know, or have heard that, bees are vital for us and that climate change and pesticides are leading to a decline in their population, but what are we doing to help? Let’s explore our humble honey bees.
There are over 20,000 species of bee across the world, but each colony has three types of bees: the queen, the worker, and the drone. Worker bees and the queen bee are female, whilst drone bees are male. Only the queen bee can reproduce and the worker bees maintain the hive, take care of offspring, and collect pollen and nectar to feed the colony. The only job of a drone bee is to mate with the queen. The most common species of bee is the honey bee, who live in colonies of 50,000-60,000 workers! The bumblebee however, live in much smaller colonies of only 50-400 workers. If you want to know more about the thousands of species check out this link.
Why are bees so important to our environment? Both bumblebees and honey bees are excellent pollinators, especially honey bees as they are the most important pollinator of food crops. It has been estimated that 1/3 of the food consumed every day relies heavily on pollination by bees (amongst a few other insects, birds and bats). Much domestic and imported fruit/veg requires pollination, for example avocados, asparagus, broccoli, cucumbers, citrus fruit, peaches, kiwis, cherries, and melons to name but a few. These little critters pollinate plants which are fed to livestock as well, meaning that meat and dairy industries are also affected. Cleaning products include beeswax, and cotton is also pollinated by bees, so not only food is affected by our humble bees. In 2008 ~£165 million was generated for the UK economy as a result of our furry friends’ pollinating abilities. Even if a crop/flower is not pollinated by a bee, it has been shown that it is beneficial to be in the same environment as biodiversity is increased.
Why is the bee population decreasing? Einstein was quoted as saying “If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live”. Now, I’m not sure this claim has been thoroughly simulated or that he even said it but, as you can see above, the bee is important to so many things in our world. Over the last decade 1/3 of the UK’s bee population has disappeared and 24% of Europe’s bumblebees are under threat of extinction. Habitat loss, climate change, intensive farming and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) are all factors in the bees decline. The latter of these (CCD) where worker bees just disappear, is thought to be due to the use of a newer pesticide class: neonicotinoids. In February last year (2018), the European Food and Standards Agency (EFSA) published findings that these pesticides posed an unacceptable risk to bees, increasing their susceptibility to the deadly varroa mite. This has since been banned across the EU, but there are loop holes and some places have been shown to exploit them.
In 1900 there were an estimated 1 million beehives in the UK. In 2015 there were only 270,000, so what can we do to help our humble honey and bumblebees? The company “Bees for Business” is an option for businesses who want to give back to the communities. You can ‘adopt’ a hive in their ‘Project 250’, where they have pledged to have 250 new hives in the next five years. There is “Capital Bee” in London, UK, who maintain hives in South and Central London, as well as running beekeeping workshops. How about things you can do at home? You can buy locally made honey and products that are “bee friendly” (i.e. food that has not been covered in harmful pesticides). Bees that are not part of large hives can sometimes struggle to find a habitat where they can nest and reproduce in, so why not make (or buy) a bee hotel? This could be a great activity for the Easter holidays. A bee B&B mimics the traditional conditions a bee would look for. Here is a great guide from the RSPB. Finally, you can try planting bees favourite flowers such as sedums, verbena, crocus, honeysuckle and foxgloves, as well as letting your grass grow more than usual because they love wildflowers.
With so many species of bee you may assume another would take over pollinating power if the honey bee were to become extinct, but by contributing to 1/3 of our food source, the honey bee has a huge effect on our lives. We may not die out if the honey bees died, but there would be famine on a monumental scale, and it would take more time than we had to recover from. Try out some of the bee friendly things above and let us know what you think! Bee Happy.