Comment: Plan Bee

Melanie Etherton 5 March 2013

Start by imagining a bee… now pause. That fluffy creature buzzing round your head is worth billions of pounds to the economy, provides a critical service as a worldwide pollinator, and is undergoing one of the worst population declines of any group of wildlife in the UK today.

It’s not a joke, and they’re not aliens fleeing the apocalypse (we don’t think), but the bees are disappearing and it’s a problem. One of the UK’s main species is the honeybee; small, amazing creatures that live in colonies of around 60,000 individuals with each individual (if scaled up) flying the human equivalent of 1000km each day. UK honeybee numbers have fallen around 30% in the last couple of decades. Our other group of species is the almost illegally cute bumblebee (the old English name for which is Dumbledore, a fact not unnoticed by JK Rowling…) but we have protected them no better, with two species of UK bumblebees having become extinct since 1940.

This decline in the bee population should bother you. It ought to bother you if you want to continue to be able to afford large quantities of chocolate and tea, (an essential part of student life) because a world with fewer pollinators means lower availability and increased price of essential food products. It ought to bother you if you care about the UK economy, since seventy of our main crop species are partially or totally dependent on visits from wild pollinators. For those who are actually living on subsistence food, the pollinator decline is already a real problem. Of the 870 million peoplein the world who do not have enough to eat, 75% of them depend directly on insect-pollinated staple crops, such as beans, for their very survival.

So if they’re not fleeing the planet, as Doctor Who tries to tell us, where are the bees going? Research is still in the early stages, but it’s probably a combination of the following: firstly, imagine having a parasite the size of a dinner plate on your back, giving you diseases from previous hosts while sucking your blood. This is a varroa mite, populations of which are busy infecting and destroying honeybee colonies as we speak. Secondly, diseases and harmful pesticides are also contributing to the decline of bees – how would you like it if poison was sprayed daily on your food and workplace (i.e. pollen and flowers).

On top of this, there’s the small issue of habitat loss. ‘This story, despite often repeated, is rarely actually listened to’. Our country has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows since the 1930s. I spoke to Gill Perkins, a representative from one of the UK’s most important charities in pollinator conservation, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. She agrees that the “shortage of suitable food plants and nesting sites is the main cause of the decline of wild pollinators”. Intensifying agriculture through increased use of herbicides, narrowing of field verges and destroying hedgerows may increase short term crop yield, but, ironically, only does so at the expense of the wild flowers required to sustain their pollinators.

So, as the human population accelerates past the 7 billion mark, we should all be waking up to the fact that we will soon be relying on our pollinators more and more in order to feed the world. Plans for the future are beginning to develop, including more research into quantifying these declines and organising campaigns to help, such as those initiated by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and the Co-Operative supermarket. These campaigns involve methods such as restoring habitats like verges and hedgerows with pollinators in mind and in finding ways to use the UK’s 1 million hectares of gardens (equivalent to 200,000 Midsummer Commons or 920 000 of the ubiquitous football pitches) more effectively, things we can all contribute to in our own small way.

Bees are declining and this should bother you, not just because of their irresistible charm but also because of their vital importance. Once lost, creatures like this will be gone forever. Let’s support them now – there is no Plan B.

Melanie Etherton