How can we help to replenish the world’s dwindling bee population?
There is a quote attributed to Einstein: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years left to live.” While we’re not near that possibility yet, bee numbers are in serious decline all over the world. According to a study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), one in ten of Europe’s 1,965 wild bee species are under threat of extinction. In a global study the same organisation found that a quarter of the world’s 250 bumblebee species are at risk. Meanwhile honeybee numbers are taking huge hits from the so-called Colony Collapse Disorder which wiped out a third of all honeybee colonies in the US in 2007 and a similar percentage in the UK in 2012/13.
The main reason is loss of food and habitat, according to Alison Benjamin, author of several books about bees and co-founder of social enterprise, Urban Bees. “We’ve lost 97 per cent of our wild flower meadows since 1945,” she says, “because farmers have got huge farms now and they’re planting monocrops. There’s not much there for the bees to eat and bees need food from spring right through to late summer.” Benjamin also points to the intensification of farming practices, greater use of pesticides, loss of hedgerows, and the end to the practice of leaving fields fallow, which used to provide valuable habitat.
Global warming is also a factor. A recent study published in the journal, Science found that 67 different species of bumblebee across Europe and North America are being pushed out of their southern habitats by rising temperatures at a rate of nine kilometres per year. And in terms of the Colony Collapse Disorder in honeybees, it is thought to be caused by a combination of agricultural pesticides, lack of food and the varroa mite, a parasite which weakens individual bees and can destroy whole colonies.
Fortunately more and more people are coming to understand the importance of bees and want to do something to help. Fortunately there are some very simple measures which everyone can take and some great examples springing up across the world for people and organisations to follow.
Agnes Lyche Melvaer is head of Bybi, a Norwegian environmental group promoting the growth of urban bees in Oslo by creating a ‘bee highway’ of flowers and nesting places across the city. For Agnes part of the solution is about rethinking the way we affect the landscape and by looking at that landscape through the eyes of bees. “Many environmental problems are caused because we are only thinking from the human perspective,” says Melvaer. “These projects are about developing new relations to the pollinators and the landscape.” Bybi has done this by creating a ‘City Guide’ from the point of view of a bee, with places to eat and stay marked on a map of Oslo. When people plant flowers that provide food for bees, they are encouraged to upload a photo with a location to Bybi’s polli.no website where it appears as a ‘bee restaurant’. Similarly people can make simple ‘bumblebee boxes’ and ‘insect hotels’ and upload them as ‘bee accommodation’.
It is an idea which Melvaer would like to see rolled out in cities across the world, but in the meantime, she insists, anyone can do their own bit, simply by planting the right flowers in their gardens, window boxes, allotments or even on their rooftops.
Others aren’t just encouraging bees into urban landscapes, they’re physically bringing them. In London firms like EY, KPMG and Lloyds of London all keep honeybees and even the London Stock Exchange has a beehive on its roof. However the biggest problem facing bees isn’t within cities, according to Melvaer, but outside them in the semi-rural world of modern agriculture. “Urban bees nowadays produce more honey than the outside,” she says, “which is a bit alarming. It says that conditions are not that great in the countryside.”
Joined up efforts
So how can we tackle the threat to bees from modern agriculture? “We need to keep up the pressure on the ban on pesticides,” says Benjamin. “We need to get more flowers and wild hedgerows back into the countryside.We need more funding for stewardship grants to encourage famers to do that kind of thing. But above all we need to keep raising awareness of how important bees are.”
One solution, according to Benjamin, is the creation of so called B-Lines – wildflower-rich corridors which link existing wildlife areas together so that bees and other pollinating insects can join up their fragmented habitats. Even the problem of the varroa mite can be cleaned up – literally – according to a study which showed that breeding for uber-tidy honeybees that keep their hives cleaner than average, could eventually minimise the problem.
Maybe the future for bees isn’t so dark after all. Agnes Lyche Melvaer is optimistic but believes it will take a more joined up effort, one which we haven’t seen yet but which the internet can facilitate. “It’s not just about making physical corridors,” she says, “it’s about connecting all the different initiatives. The internet is a super way to bring the local and the global together. I think we’ll get a lot of solutions in the future.”
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Photo credit: Grant from Flickr