We’ll all be stung if bees die out

Honey is relished worldwide as nature’s candy. But if the trajectory of declining bee populations continues, it’s not just honey we’ll lose.

Honey eaten by itself is delicious, but it also has broad use: in packaged foods as a natural sweetener, in cosmetics, and even in the medical industry for antibacterial purposes. The estimated value of bees in Australia alone is over $1.7 billion annually. However, since the 1940s bees have been declining, with the US experiencing an almost 60% decline in bee colonies. Additionally, in 1967 over 500,000 commercial hives were recorded to have collapsed or been severely damaged.

Given it takes one worker bee a lifetime (which is about 40 days) to produce just one teaspoon of honey, the rapid decline of bees observed world-wide is of considerable concern for the honey industry.

However, is honey the main concern?

Photo: Wendy Berry on Flickr

If bees became extinct, we’d lose much more than honey. Bees provide the service of pollination, and about one-third of what you eat depends upon this process, including foods like apples, almonds, strawberries, tomatoes, lemons, and mangoes. Bees are the primary pollinators around the world, with honey bees (Apis mellifera) taking the lead.

Studies have shown that without bees to perform cross-fertilisation, the quality and quantity of food production reduces. It’s clear that pollinator species play an undervalued role in the ability for humans to survive, let alone other organisms which also rely upon these food sources. The reality is that if bees disappear, so too do many of our foods.

Scientists believe that a variety of factors are having a cumulative effect on the rapid decline of bee populations, or what is better known as ‘colony collapse disorder’. The culture of monocropping in modern-day agricultural practice means that wild bees can only forage for nectar and pollen when the crops blossom each season. For many crops, this window of food collection is extremely short. For example, apple trees blossom for about five days. These food shortages can lead to the death of entire colonies, and in the US, this has left almost no wild bees in agricultural regions.

Another major factor is pesticide exposure. The class of insecticides called neonicotinoids are perhaps the most insidious culprits, having become an almost essential input to food production. In fact, it’s nearly impossible in developing countries to buy seeds that have not been coated in neonicotinoids, which ostensibly protect your crops from pests prior to the germination stage. Yet even when the toxicity of these compounds occurs at field-realistic doses, they can have lethal impacts for non-target organisms like bees, causing harm at both the individual and colony levels. This has enormous flow-on effects, leaving hives more susceptible to viruses that can be transmitted through parasites such as the Varroa mite. It’s when these factors accumulate that we see colony collapse disorder.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

What about technical solutions? Artificial pollination has been the norm in many agricultural regions of China since the 1980s, but it’s a growing trend worldwide. In China, this involves the farm owner collecting pollen in advance, then contracting hand-pollinators to work for the duration of the blossoming period. Hand-pollinators climb trees to reach every blossoming flower with a jar of pollen and a paintbrush in hand. This is both ecologically and economically inefficient. For example, if an apple farmer has 50 acres of land, containing approximately 450 apple trees per acre, this equals 22,500 trees. Presuming the workers are efficient and the trees are small, one worker could hand-pollinate approximately ten trees per day. Over the five-day period of blossoming, this would equate to 2,250 days of wages and require at least 450 workers! And yet this is an ecosystem service that bees can provide for free.

These immense costs have made the production of foods that require cross-pollination no longer viable for many Chinese farmers. Considering apple production in China represents about 50 percent of the world’s total apples produced, this is of concern. The lack of incentive to grow bee-dependent crops is already occurring, with many farmers transitioning to commodities that don’t need insect pollination. As a result, we are likely to see an increase in price of foods requiring cross-pollination. This would lead to decreased variety of foods in our diets, and perhaps, even a decrease in the amount of food produced itself.

Looking to the future, there are a number of solutions being proposed. For example, ‘Integrated Pest Management’, which encourages natural pest control mechanisms, is gaining popularity in the agricultural sector to reduce the overreliance on pesticides.

But for now, let’s enjoy the bees while we have them. The next time you eat an apple, remember the bee that worked for your bite.

Main photo: Andy Smith on Flickr