Pollination Crisis: Why Are Our Bees Disappearing?

, written by Jeremy Dore gb flag

Bee on raspberry flower

Bees aren't usually something that we gardeners give a lot of thought to.  They're a welcome sign of Spring and generally go about their business of enjoying the flowers while we plant the crops that they then pollinate for us.  It is all so natural that we may be inclined to take it for granted but soon it may not be that simple. According to warnings from beekeepers, scientists and some government bodies honey bees are on the decline.

For several years honey-bee populations have been dropping but in recent months the situation has become much worse.  Colony Collapse Disorder is the term for the problem where up to 90% of bees in each hive die, destroying the whole colony as it then can’t make it through winter.  North America has lost some 50% of all managed colonies, a situation which has led some experts to predict that we are on the brink of a 'pollination crisis'. 

Globally up to two thirds of major agricultural crops require pollination by insects.  Fruit such as apples, pears and berries completely rely on pollination to bear a crop, whereas peppers, tomatoes, oilseed rape and many others produce much higher yields with good insect pollination.  Bees are the most active agents in this and many farmers are keen to introduce them.  The US Department of Agriculture estimates that one in every three mouthfuls of food is dependent in some way on pollination by bees.  Honey bees are the best at pollination and are experiencing the worst decline, although bumble-bees also face their own problems.

So what is causing the worrying loss of honey bee colonies?  Several threats have been identified:

  • The Varroa mite: a parasite that was accidentally introduced, spreading to most parts of the world, is known to be causing long term decline in the number of honey bees.  Colonies infested with the mite suffer much higher levels of viral disease and ‘stress’ in the bees.
  • Nosema: a digestive system disease which affects adult honey bees, spread by spores which are difficult to eradicate. A new faster spreading variety which originated in Asia has now been detected in America and Europe.
  • Poor weather conditions in the UK (long winter and wet cool summer) have reduced the number of colonies that survived last winter and caused a delayed build-up of population for those that did make it, again reducing production.  For the first time ever British honey supplies are expected to run out by Christmas and a good friend of mine who keeps bees has had just 12lb of honey this year, compared with the usual 300lb harvest.
“Honeybee

But none of these factors completely explains the sudden losses that characterise Colony Collapse Disorder.  In a recent press release, the Soil Association is implicating a group of pesticides manufactured by Bayer CropScience.  Already four European countries have banned the group of products known as neonicotinoids.  These work their way through the sprayed plant, attacking the nervous system of insects that come in contact with them.  They can be present in pollen and then build up in the wax bees produce in their hives.  Germany was one of the first to prohibit their use after beekeepers in one region reported losing two thirds of their bees following the application of one of the pesticides.  At least one court cases has been brought against the company.  However these pesticides are some of Bayer's best selling so they may be reluctant to withdraw the products given that they made an €800 million profit last year.

As with most crises, the problems surrounding Colony Collapse Disorder are not yet fully understood.  Pesticides may well have a large role to play, especially as they are widely used on crops such as oilseed rape, which bees love due to the bright flowers and the amount of nectar they produce.  Others believe that the more virulent strain of Nosema is to blame.  But more research urgently needs to be done if the predicted 'pollination crisis' is to be avoided.  Many bee keeping associations are calling for urgent funding to kick start the search for answers.

Gardeners may think that they are largely immune to this problem.  When dealing with growing on a garden scale, pollination can be managed by less insects, or even done by hand (as detailed in our Pollination Guide which gives details of how to do this).  But few of us have enough land to be self-sufficient and even if we did our fruit and bean crops would still be largely reliant on bees (it's not easy to hand pollinate a full grown apple tree!)  If the production of pollinated crops suffers then the looming food supply issues will be worsened.  Far better to try and avert a crisis like that than to deal with the consequences.  Let's hope that those in charge of commissioning research can mobilise the required resources quickly before we have to add bees to the list of problems facing our food production in the coming decade.

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Comments

 
"What would you suggest the average allotment holder could do to help with this problem? We have a 4 acre site that has no bee keepers on it, how would we go about training people? Edge Lane Allotment society. "
Patrick Maher on Saturday 18 October 2008
"Patrick, my understanding is that there is little that gardeners can actually do about this colony collapse disorder - the main thing is that urgent research needs to be undertaken. That being said, I am doing all I can to attract bumble bees by sowing plants they love such as phacelia (also a good green manure) and providing some good nectar sources for them such as comfrey and buddleja. Bumble bees aren't as good at pollinating as many honey bees but they are a good second best - see www.bumblebee.org/helpbees.htm for other ideas for gardeners and allotment holders."
Jeremy Dore on Sunday 19 October 2008
"To Patrick Maher, make contact with your local beekeeping association who may well run beekeeping courses or even offer practical hands-on experience. If none of your allotmentholders wants to keep bees themselves perhaps you could consider hosting a few hives from the local beekeepers who are probably struggling to find suitable sites. Use the British Beekeepers website www.bbka.org.uk to track down local beekeepers."
Chris Broad on Friday 16 January 2009
"Update: The UK government has just announced a £4.3 million package to undertake more reserach into this important subject - a very welcome move for beekeepers, farmers and gardeners."
Jeremy Dore on Friday 23 January 2009
"I'm a hobbyist beekeeper; I keep between 20 and 30 colonies and I had my best-ever year in 2007 (average honey crop, per honey-producing colony: 200 lbs per hive); 2008 was very good but not as productive as 2007. As an experiment, I moved the 6 colonies that I have in my back yard out onto farmland and left an empty hive (together with some old comb) as an attractant ..... I was amazed at the number of feral bees that visited the empty hive and, before long, a wild swarm soon took up residence, proving that there are plenty of 'wild' honeybees in this part of the country. Colony Collapse Disease (CCD)(if such a thing does actually exist), is more likely to be down to poor bee husbandry on the part of beekeepers, usually those who have not been taught by the old County Beekeeping Instructors (CBI). After WW2, nearly every County had its own Agricultural College and, embedded inside those colleges was a CBI. In the 1980s, they were all made redundant .... they weren't "profitable" ..... and, 25 years later, Britain is reaping the benefit of that decision. Beekeeping is often "taught" by ....... let's just say: "those who shouldn't be teaching". The honeybee is similar to the human in that it requires a balanced diet: nectar provides the carbohydrate whilst pollen provides the protein. If humans were fed a diet of BigMacs, 3 times a day, 7 days a week and then, after one month, they switched to lettuce and French fries, they, too, might succumb to Colony Collapse Disorder! I haven't found the Varroa mite to be too much of a challenge .... it's more a nuisance than anything else. "Varroa" isn't a disease; it's an invasive mite and can be relatively easily controlled by using chemicals in the fall and by keeping young queens on combs not more than 3 years old. "
Essex Boy on Friday 30 January 2009

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