And with all of the other factors threatening our food supply, I really don’t need to hear that the numbers of honeybees worldwide have plummeted. In the UK, beekeepers are reporting a one in three loss of colonies. Quite frankly, I have enough to worry about.
We rely on the honeybee for many food crops that must be pollinated by them in order to produce fruit or seed. These include a range of berries, citrus fruits, fruits, legumes, nuts and vegetables. There are also many crops that increase their yield and quality if pollinated by bees.
Why are bees disappearing? Well, no one knows for sure. There is much research being done at the moment, but a major suspect is a group of insecticides called neonicotinoids. The thing is, these were first used in agriculture in the mid ‘90s, which is when bees started disappearing. Studies done since neonicotinoids release prompted a formal peer review of data by the European Food Safety Authority in 2013. Their conclusion is that neonicotinoids pose an unacceptably high risk to bees.
And the evidence against neonicotinoids is strong enough to convince France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia to withdraw them. The UK government has not followed suit, but the Co-op has banned them on their farms. Honeybees suffer from other problems, such as mites, loss of habitat, poor nutrition and genetics, but these seem to rank way behind the damage caused by insecticides.
Bees are actually more sensitive to neonicotinoids. These chemicals target neurological receptors and honeybees have a higher number of these receptors than other insects. Also, honeybees do not live alone, instead sharing a hive with about 50,000 other bees and these relationships are important and complicated.
About 10,000 of the bees in a hive are foragers. When they find nectar, they return to the hive and do the ‘waggle dance’ to communicate to the other bees the flight direction according to the sun and the distance to the nectar. Bees also are able to build perfectly hexagonal cells. These skills are based on behaviour patterns that rely on a nervous system that is functioning perfectly.
The neonicotinoids disrupt neurological signaling, messing up their communication, homing, foraging, flight, learning, immune system and sense of smell. In pesticide safety trials, they determine the lethal dose of a pesticide on a bee, but this doesn’t give a clear idea of how neurological disruption will affect the hive.
I try not to worry the kids about the plight of the bees. We plant flowers and vegetables that honeybees like, but what we’re doing is small scale. I love bees and I love seeing them heavy with pollen, visiting my garden. Yeah, sometimes I scream and flail when bees buzz my ear, but I love them and don’t want to think of honeybees disappearing. Also, if bees are in such decline, this is surely a Big Red Flag in terms of other environmental problems.
So what else can we do to help the honeybee? Well, watch this film http://vanishingbees.co.uk for more information. And, quite simply, to help the bees, buy and eat organic food.