Beekeeping is an ancient tradition and bees are extremely important in the environment, providing pollination for a wide range of crops and wild plants. Monitoring and maintaining healthy bee stocks is important on a local, national and global level.
Whether you are a farmer, a beekeeper or a consumer, you have something to lose if bees disappear – and there is a part you can play in helping them to survive.
Bees are disappearing
The first few reports of the decline in the bee population came from beekeepers when they saw perfectly healthy beehives being abandoned. In many cases, the adult bees disappeared and left behind the queen and the young. This came to be called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) or vanishing bee syndrome.
According to an annual nationwide survey conducted by the Bee Informed Team in 2016, beekeepers in the United States lost 44% of their colonies between April 2015 and April 2016.
Despite a world population of between 80 and 100 million domesticated hives, bee numbers are dwindling. Hundreds of bee species have become extinct over the past 10 years and many countries around the world have noticed a decline in bee populations. The U.K., for example, has lost one-third of its bee population over the last decade.
Disappearing bees – Alarming consequences
It’s hard to imagine that we are so dependent on bees but approximately one-third of everything we eat is a direct result of what they do. Bees are primary pollinators in human and animal food chains.
When bees disappear, the implications are alarming for biodiversity, food chains, and, ultimately, our ability to feed ourselves. Some crops, like almonds and avocados, depend almost entirely on bees for pollination. Other crops, like apples, squash, cucumbers and many others, need pollinators to grow.
Some farmers, such as those in Hanyuan Country, China, are resorting to hand-pollinating their crops, using brushes to place pollen on each flower.
Why are the bees disappearing?
No single cause of declining bee numbers has been identified. Several possible contributing factors may be acting separately or in combination. Some of the main reasons are pesticides, climate change, industrial agriculture and parasites or pathogens.
The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) established that neonicotinoid pesticide use is risky for bees. These pesticides interfere with the learning circuits in their brains and they die because they forget basic associations, such as the one between the smell of the flowers and food. This affects their survival as they are unable to feed themselves.
Another problem for bees is the Varroa Mite – a parasite that kills bees. It invades them, feeds on their blood and can transmit lethal viruses to the rest of the hive. The Varroa mite is a challenging problem for backyard beekeepers or those who manage fewer than 50 colonies.
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)
As mentioned above, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has been devastating the honey bee population, with bees disappearing from their hives.
Experts have given several theories for CCD, including stress, lack of access to food sources, exposure to pesticides, disease and parasites. However, recent studies seem to be finding a convincing link between CCD and the use of neonicotinoid pesticides.
Climate changes have altered flowering and the amount of plants, which affects the quantity and quality of nectar. Air pollution reduces the strength of chemical signals flowers send out and bees find it more difficult to locate them.
The destruction of their habitats, loss of biodiversity and lack of forage due to changing patterns in land use, such as monocultures, are all affecting bees and causing poor nutrition.
Help to restore the bee population
1. Make your garden bee-friendly
Not everyone can be a beekeeper but you can support a variety of bees in your yard. Bee-friendly plants aren’t difficult to grow. Bees prefer something similar to their natural habitat – a meadow. They don’t like a garden that is too tidy. Let clover and dandelion grow freely in some spots as they are favorite bee delicacies.
Salvia, lavender, sage, yellow hyssop, Echinacea, goldenrod and buttercup are other plants bees love. Try to have blooms all year round and skip double flowers because they lack pollen.
Five or six large, flowering trees will provide as much forage as an acre of wild meadow flowers. They also provide a single source of nectar, making it easier for bees to harvest.
Leave some spots with brush piles or dense plantings where birds and bees can construct nests. You can also provide a bee house for solitary bees by taking a block of wood and drilling holes in it.
Give the bees a shallow source of water to drink from, such as a shallow bowl or birdbath with a few pebbles so they can easily climb in or out.
2. Don’t use garden pesticides
Beware of all hidden killers. Pesticides are bad for you and worse for bees. If feeding bees is important, so is making sure that their food isn’t poisoned. Even in small doses, pesticides can weaken the immune system of bees and make them more susceptible to disease and Varroa mites.
Some commercial compost contains a deadly insecticide called imidacloprid that is very toxic. Plants absorb the chemical and bees looking for water may just die after drinking it if you use the compost in hanging baskets.
Convince your family and friends to drop pesticides too. There are better ways of dealing with pests, such as using organic or biological controls. Many online resources provide useful tips for you that will help you to move in the direction of organic gardening.
3. Sow seeds secretly
Buy some wildflower seeds and look out for a little patch in your neighborhood where you can throw the seeds into the soil and let nature do its work. You will not only improve your neighborhood but the bees will love it. You could also convince your local council to plant wildflowers in public places.
4. Support local beekeepers
Buy honey from local beekeepers and you will keep their businesses going and benefit from eating local honey. Raw, unblended local honey is far better than mass-produced honey and large-scale honey suppliers are more focused on profit and output than the health of bees. You’re likely to find local beekeepers selling their honey at local farmers’ markets.
Why not take a tour of a local beekeeper’s hives with your children. Teaching them about the significance of bees and the interdependence of all living creatures is a lesson that is likely to stay with them forever.
5. Take action
If you want to help save bees on a larger scale, you need to get heard and let others know how you feel. Global campaign group Avaaz built the largest petition in the world for bees, and thousands of people flooded ministries with messages. They were successful in getting Europe to vote for a ban on bee-killing pesticides.
Avaaz is keeping up the pressure and taking the fight to the rest of the world. Antonia Staats of Avaaz says that finally, governments are listening to citizens, scientific evidence and farmers who know that bees can’t live with these chemicals and we can’t live without bees.
There are a number of petitions you’re able to sign to ban bee-killing pesticides. Sign a petition here that’s aimed at convincing the EPA.
In your local area, you may find initiatives dedicated to spreading the news about bees, their decline and what this means to us. The more the word goes out, the more people will be encouraged to do their part to protect bees.
6. Support organic farmers
Support organic farmers who are using natural farming methods that are bee-friendly. Supporting local growers and supporting bees go hand in hand. If you buy fruit and vegetables from local organic farmers, you are helping to support earth-friendly agriculture.
7. Stay informed
There are some misconceptions going around about bees and it is important to keep yourself well informed. Watch the documentary Vanishing of the Bees for more insight into the economic, ecological and political implications of the disappearance of the honeybee.
Listen to Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Der Ness of Queer Eye fame. He hosts an interview with Professor James Nieh in an episode, ”How can we be less rude to bees?” You will hear about the diseases killing off bees, how bees communicate in the hive, the role bees play in bringing us almonds, and more.
Pollinator.org has many resources where you can learn about the life cycle of the bee, parasites, pesticides etc. to help you better understand the bees around the world and in your backyard.
A final word
Bee populations around the world are dwindling. The disappearance of bees first came to people’s attention in 2006 when beekeepers reported that bees were disappearing from hives. This abnormal phenomenon was called Colony Collapse Disorder.
It is difficult to single out any one cause of the dwindling bee populations but the use of pesticides is receiving much attention. Other factors to blame are the Varroa mite and environmental changes such as air pollution and less biodiversity.
Just one of the ways individuals can make a difference is by planning pollinator-friendly gardens as more nectar and pollen sources provided by more flowing plants and trees help to improve the health and numbers of bees. Eliminating the use of pesticides and supporting local beekeepers are other ways you can help. If you want to have a larger impact, you can become involved with local initiatives, sign petitions and become more informed so you can begin educating others about bees and their importance.