Long Live the Queen Bee
The Honey Bee and Our Food Security
We love food.
Not only in the sense that there are an amazing variety of flavours to sample, but more importantly (for this article) in that we need food to survive.
About ten years ago was when we learned that much of the world was suffering a serious collapse in honey bee colonies (known as colony collapse disorder). We were also seeing a considerable reduction in the populations of wild bees. As bees are responsible for the pollination of over one-third of the plants we eat, this flagged a major concern for long-term food security around the world.
The End of the World is Nigh
Imagine a world without many of the fruits we have easy access to today. No apples, pears, melons, cherries, or peaches. There would be no avocados, or tomatoes, or many type of berries. No cashews, macadamias, or almonds. Grapes would have greater difficulty with pollination which means (end of the world) less wine!
Even plant varieties that can also be pollinated by other insect varieties would have much more limited production. This would affect (also end of the world depending upon your preferences) chocolate, coffee, and tea production. In many areas dairy would be restricted as cows are fed on lucerne (alfalfa) or clover, which are species which requires honey bee pollination. And add to this the vast numbers of non-food flowering plant and tree species that are reliant on bees for reproduction.
There is a quote, oft mis-attributed to Einstein that is;
“If the honey bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”
Whilst the situation is perhaps not quite that dire, if the bees were to disappear you can see that it would be a dramatically different world we would be living in. For certain there would be much reduced yields on crops, and more misshapen fruit meaning greater wastage.
Now for the good news! Since the recognition of what was happening, much research and study has been done to understand the reasons behind the collapse of bee colonies. Many countries have developed systems for monitoring the health of honey bee colonies. Whilst there is still a long way to go, we now have a greater understanding of the causes, and what can be done to support our friends, the bees.
Stressed Out Bees
Our current understanding of the failure of bee colonies is based upon the complex interaction of “sublethal stressors” that affect a bee’s foraging abilities. These are factors which limit or interfere with a bee’s ability to collect food over quite large distances, and return it to the hive. Individually these factors do not kill bees, however combinations of these stressors can lead a colony to collapse.
Some of the current known stressors for bees are;
- Pests, parasites, and viruses. Often spread through regional and international trade. The most serious of these is the Varroa Destructor Mite which causes severe problems in some areas around the world. Due to strict biosecurity laws in Australia we have prevented outbreaks of the Varroa Mite. However as Australian bees are not resistant to the viruses the mites carry, they are one of the largest current concerns.
- Reduction of flowering plants. As a result of large scale development, or intensive farming practices, leaving not enough food for the bees to survive.
- Herbicide and pesticide usage. The class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids has been found to be especially dangerous. They have strongly adverse effects on bee colonies, and are extremely persistent in the environment, causing damage long after their usage has stopped. A number of these are currently banned in the European Union.
- Environmental change. Anything which can interfere with the relationship between the bees and the plants they feed on.
What Can We Do?
On the larger scale Government, Industry, and Community need to work together to improve the environments in which bees thrive.
On the positive side, because of the numerous factors involved, there are a number of simple and easy actions that can be taken to assist. These include;
- Planting flowering garden borders using bee-friendly flower varieties. Ensure that you select a range of plant varieties that will flower at differing times during the year. This helps provide food to both wild, and honey (domestic) bees, all year round.
- Build or install a bee hotel. This can give a protected space for solitary bee species to reproduce.
- Reduce or stop using pesticides. There are alternatives including natural pest-repellent plant varieties, or plants which attract the pests to themselves, and away from those you would normally spray.
- Buy organic food. When farmers are growing crops without the use of pesticides, it gives the bees plenty of food without the risk to their health.
- Donate money to organisations carrying out research into bees and food security. The Wheen Bee Foundation is one such organisation doing good work in these areas.
In Australia we are actually quite lucky. Our large areas of bushland and forest provide uncontaminated access to bee food sources (try some varietal honey from these). Additionally as noted above, our quarantine biosecurity laws have restricted the numbers of pests endangering our bees. Despite this, further work still needs to be done to protect both our native and domestic bee colonies.
If you would like to assist with protecting our bees – please make donations to www.wheenbeefoundation.org.au