One of the most essential and most overlooked problems of our presence on Earth is that the worldwide bee population is diminishing fast. Bees fulfill an indispensable role in the pollination of the crops that make up our worldwide food supply, so it is absolutely necessary that we start to take measures to turn this extinction event around.
The importance of bees
As stated above, bees play a very important role in the pollination of nearly every type of plant in the world. That means they also pollinate a large part of the plants we consume, like coffee beans and almost all types of fruit and vegetables. Without pollination, it is impossible for new plants to be created, and these types of plants are fully dependent on animal pollinators, such as bees, birds and butterflies. According to the United Nations Environment Program, 70 of the 100 crop species that make up 90% of the world’s food supply, are pollinated by bees. It’s an easy conclusion that the extinction of bees would result in a food crisis.
The most eaten produce worldwide consists of corn, rice and wheat. These crops are wind-pollinated, so they will be able to grow even without the existence of pollinators. Of course, it would be far from ideal to live on a diet that consists solely of these types of produce, and replacing lost veggies and fruit with meat would probably the worst idea ever. Besides, the lost of our foremost pollinator will excessively impoverish agricultural grounds, and thus undeniably result in lesser harvests for wind-pollinated crops as well.
With a global human population that shows no signs of ceasing to expand, the loss of bees would be a disaster of extreme proportions. The famine and starvation it would cause will be felt throughout the whole world, and if the extinction of bees actually becomes irreversible, many research results show that humankind will have a hard time surviving as well.
Why are bees struggling?
As you may have suspected earlier in this article, bees worldwide are having a hard time surviving. There are some reasons for this situation, but human activities make up most of them.
Destruction and degradation of habitats
First of all, due to agriculture and the expanding of cities, humans have degraded and destroyed a large part of the natural habitats of bees. Agriculture is a great evildoer, since agricultural soil only provides for a certain type of crop to grow. Humans and their machines take out any plant that can take valuable minerals and water from the soil.
Of course, there are also grasslands to provide grass for cattle, but the cattle either keeps the grass short or agriculturists mow the grass and stash it to feed their cattle during winter. These practices take away the chance for wildflowers to blossom and be able to feed the bees in the surrounding area. Also, some bee species need a fully undisturbed habitat to nest and search for food and they die out when this is not available anymore.
The degradation of the natural habitats has now been taking place for years and is one of the main causes for the decline in bee population. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has predicted a global loss of 20,000 flowering plant species in the upcoming decades. This will surely impact the remaining population of bees, since most species are highly dependent on plant variety.
Poisoning by chemicals
Chemicals play a large role in modern day agriculture. Chemicals enable agriculturists to easily get rid of weeds and insects that feed on their crops. Unfortunately, these chemicals also affect bees. They can immediately kill bees that are in the area when being used. The chemicals spread further through winds and the bees that encounter lower doses of chemicals can lose their reproductive ability.
Furthermore, agriculturists like to use insecticide seed coatings, that protect the plant from insects without having to spray insecticides on them later on. The seed coating spreads through the whole plant and its flowers, causing a chronic toxic exposure to the bees and insects that pollinate the plant. It has been scientifically proven that a bee’s memory and sense of direction can be fundamentally compromised by these chemicals, after which they won’t be able to find food anymore. Also, the bees’ immune systems excessively decline after exposure to chemicals like pesticides, insecticides and herbicides, which makes it more difficult for them to fight viruses.
Chemicals also annihilate flowers, other nectar sources and plants that bees use to set off their larvae, which heavily thwarts the survival and continuation of many bee species.
Insecticides and pesticides are not only used in agriculture, but also in people’s gardens, parks, sports fields, forests and around lakes and swamps where mosquitoes thrive. This means that the amount of safe, chemical-free areas for bees to live and forage in is minimal and declining every day.
Viruses and parasites
One thing that is essential about bees is that they are very sensitive creatures. Their systems are prone to changes, pollution and diseases, which results in the mass fading away of species.
In the past years there has been an increase in pathogens and parasites among bees. The pathogens are mostly originating from commercially managed bee colonies and have crossed over to native species, which have not been able to cope and die out consequently.
Then, commercially managed bees and wild bees are both victim of parasites. Parasites thrive in unhealthy ecosystems, in which the world is increasingly rich. An unhealthy ecosystem is one in which one plant, animal or organism is far more present than any other, resulting in the suppression of all other living creatures. A healthy ecosystem is considered to be a balanced system in which many types of plants, animals and organisms live alongside each other. Any animal or plant will be better off in a healthy ecosystem, but the bee actually goes as far to essentially need healthy ecosystems to be able to survive.
Bees are very sensitive insects and thus they are heavily impacted by air pollution. Chemicals in the air influence the scent trails flowers give off. It has been researched that a scent trail in the 1800s could travel as far as 800 meters, whereas the same scent trail nowadays can only reach about 200 meters. Electrical and magnetic fields are also rumoured to influence a bee’s behaviour, since a bee actually has lead in its system. However, not much research has been conducted to this pattern yet.
How to help bees
From the aforementioned information, you may have guessed some ways in which you can help bees in their survival. Here are some tips you can apply at home!
Stop saving the honey bee
The most important tip is to stop saving honey bees. Honey bees are not the bees that need your help. The honey they produce has economic value, so their existence is guaranteed through their commercial value for us humans. By creating ideal circumstances for honey bees, like placing a small hive on your balcony or planting flower seeds that attract honey bees, you consequently lessen the chances of survival for solitary bees. Honey bees need massive amounts of nectar to produce the stash of honey they create and the nectar they forage will be lost to solitary bees.
Another reason why the honey bee should not be the bee to focus on is that they are terrible pollinators compared to their solitary brothers and sisters. Honey bees collect pollen in a very neat manner, sticking it together with nectar under their hind legs so nothing gets lost. Solitary bees are much more sloppy, and much of the pollen they collect sticks to their furry bodies and falls off when they visit another flower.
Solitary bees also like to cross-pollinate, darting from one tree to the next and back again, whereas the honey bee is inclined to visit every flower on one tree before moving on. Cross-pollination is essential in the reproduction of plant and flower species, so solitary bees are much more efficient when the intention is to retain biodiversity.
Compare honey bees to a bumblebee and see that the bumblebee is a much better pollinator. They are larger, so they can carry a heavier load and make longer trips. A bumblebee visits twice as many flowers per minute than a honey bee. They are also fluffier and sloppier, which means more pollen get stuck to their bodies and pollinate other flowers. Furthermore, they fly at low temperatures (10°C), low light levels and even in light drizzle and strong winds, whereas the honey bee doesn’t.
Also, 90% of bees worldwide are solitary and only 7 in all 20,000 bee species in the world are honey bees.
So if you really want to help the bees and the biodiversity of tomorrow, stop trying to save the honey bee! Instead focus on the solitary bee and try to make your surroundings as inviting to them as possible.
Stop using chemical pesticides, insecticides and herbicides
Any chemical you spray in your garden or home will affect the bees in the neighbourhood. This is also the case if you use chemicals that claim to only target certain insects, like mosquitoes, ants or cockroaches.
In your garden, also refrain from using these chemicals. The most popular herbicide is glyphosate, which you may also know under its brand name Roundup. This extremely aggressive herbicide will affect any insect in the close area to your garden, as well as cats, rabbits, fish and rabbits. The state of California is now even putting glyphosate on their list of cancer-causing chemicals, so be aware that your own health and that of the ones around you can also be damaged by using this product.
Don’t mow the lawn too often
This may be a very welcome tip for many people, since mowing the lawn is seen as one of the most annoying chores during the summer. Keeping the grass in your lawn short halts any wildflower from growing, blossoming and feeding pollinators. During the summer, you should refrain from mowing your lawn until the first wildflowers have bloomed and wilted. This is usually a two month-period, after which you can cut the grass again and then wait for the next round of wildflowers to come up.
If refraining from mowing your whole lawn feels too much for you, just leave a good patch of grass uncut. Check to see if any wildflowers grow there and how many bees and butterflies you can spot.
Sow seeds of flowers solitary bees love
If you look on the internet, you will be able to find an array of bees’ favorite seedmixes. Sowing these in your garden or alongside the road will attract bees and bumblebees and make sure they at least have one place in the area where they can find food. It is important that you plant flowers that attract wild, solitary bees and bumblebees and that these mixes are organic, so no traces of pesticide chemicals will remain in the seeds.