Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The Plight of the Honeybee

Remember the summers of our childhood when the air was heavy with the smell of flowers? Remember the birds singing and bees buzzing? Have you noticed anything missing these last few years? When is the last time you heard that lazy buzzing noise? And when is the last time you saw a honeybee?

If you are like most people, you rarely hear the sound of bees anymore. This spring, I’ve seen only one honeybee so far. By this time I really should have seen way more than that. This alarming trend started in 2006 and has been getting steadily worse every year. Now the population of honeybees worldwide is dwindling so rapidly there are fears it could be the start of a worldwide environmental crisis.

Most states in the US have been badly affected by Colony Collapse Disorder – where beehives go from healthy and active to dead and gone seemingly overnight. All over the northern hemisphere, bees are dying off in their thousands. From the US to the United Kingdom and on into Europe, the crisis deepens every year. Beekeepers are struggling to stay in business as they watch their hives empty and the price of honey goes up and up.

Colony Collapse Disorder occurs when worker bees from a beehive or bee colony just up and die or simply disappear. No one knows exactly why this happens although there are a number of possible reasons. Honeybees are affected by bacterial diseases and also by parasites including the small hive beetle and Tropilaelaps mites. Attempts have been made to control the bacterial diseases with antibiotics, but this is not always successful. In the case of mites, prevention is much better than cure as colony collapse occurs very quickly if bees are infected. These things are definitely contributing to the dwindling population of honeybees.

Other possible problems include the spread of genetically altered crops. The long term effects of these controversial crops – regarded as “genetically modified” by their detractors and “genetically enhanced” by those who approve of them – are still not known. The genetic modifications made to these plants could well be affecting the bee population. Certainly plants from some modified seeds do not contain as much pollen or nectar, which is a staple part of bees’ diets. Climate change may also be playing a role in the diminishing bee population, as may the disappearance of so much countryside caused by the building of new homes and roads in greenbelt areas. Research also suggests that the radiation generated by cell phones and cell phone broadcasting masts could be affecting the bees’ navigation systems, preventing them from finding their way back to their hives.

Now you may think a dwindling bee population is not that big a thing to be worried about. So the poor old bees are having a really rough time of it, as are the beekeepers and firms that market honey. But is that really such a big deal?

Definitely. Eighty percent of the fruit and vegetables that we eat rely on bees for pollination. Therefore, a reduction in the bee population means a reduction in the amount of food that can get to market. Even the animals we eat as food rely on plants for their food – plants that are pollinated by bees. Without them, the entire food chain could potentially break into separate links – and that could spell disaster for us all. Alfred Einstein is reputed to have said “If bees disappear, mankind will follow shortly after.”

Furthermore, bees also ensure the continued proliferation of various types of flowers which are relied upon by insects and butterflies for food. As much as we dismiss many insects as annoyances, they are a vital part of the food chain and of the world’s delicate environmental balance. We could also start to lose many species of birds if the insects they rely upon for food disappear. The disappearance of honeybees could have long reaching affects all the way through the food chain, from bottom to top. It’s a very frightening thing to contemplate.

Economically the consequences could be disastrous as well. In the United Kingdom alone the pollination of crops is valued at over 200 million pounds a year. Imagine what the figure would be for a country the size of the United States. Economic losses of that scale would be catastrophic. Governments the world over are investing money into research to help save honeybees, and large companies involved in honey production and marketing are investing substantial sums into bee health research. However, more needs to be done.

Thankfully there are things we as individuals can do to help to save the honeybees. One of the best things you can do is to plant a garden. Even if you only have a small space, grow some pots of flowers. I’m told honeybees are particularly keen on mint, flowering herbs, daisy shaped flowers (including asters and sunflowers) and also tall plants like foxgloves and hollyhocks. Trees are also a good source of pollen for bees, so if you have room, it’s worth planting some of those as well. Keep pavement to a minimum in your garden, and don’t even think about cutting down any existing trees. Encourage your local city council to grow flowers in any public open spaces and protest against any plans that might involve getting rid of large amounts of open green space. Write to local and national politician to highlight the plight of bees and encourage them to support research into honeybee disease prevention and cure. Last but not least, buy honey that is local to you, or at the very least made in the same country. Honey is shipped all over the world and imported honey can be absolutely delicious – but if local bees eat even small amounts of honey from discarded bottles and jars they can pick up germs they are not used to from them and die. If you must buy imported honey, be sure to dispose of the containers carefully, and if you are recycling them, wash them thoroughly in hot, soapy water before doing so.

Winnie the Pooh may have believed that the only reason for being a bee was to make honey, but bees play a much more important role in our world than that. Without them, catastrophic environmental and economic changes would occur, and even a reduction in their numbers presents a real threat. So whether you like honey or not, it’s time we all recognized the plight of the honeybees and worked together to ensure their continued survival. It’s a matter of life and death – and not just for the bees.

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