Time to ‘bee’ concerned


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Time magazine’s recent examination of the plight of the honeybee has highlighted the alarming prospect of a world without bees.

Hives are dying off or disappearing, and have been doing so for the last decade or so. A still-unsolved condition called colony collapse disorder (CCD) is being blamed for the worrying decline in bee numbers around the world, so much so that commercial beekeepers are being pushed out of the business. The question is, what’s killing the honeybees?

The Western honeybee – Apis mellifera – is responsible for one in every three mouthfuls of food eaten daily, notes writer Bryan Walsh, who authored the cover story for the respected American publication.

The bees pollinate staple crops like apples, broccoli and blueberries, and in the words of journalist Hannah Nordhaus, writing in her 2011 book The Beekeeper’s Lament, are the “glue that holds our agricultural system together”.

But that glue is failing, Walsh warns.

As his story points out, pesticides, including a new class called neonicotinoids, which target an insect’s nervous system, appear to be harming bees even at what should be safe levels, and has roughly tracked rising bee deaths.

Exacerbating the situation are biological threats like the Varroa mite, which kills off colonies directly and spreads deadly diseases, he adds.

Another factor investigated is the emergence of those farms that have become monocultures of commodity crops like wheat and corn – plants that provide little pollen for foraging bees. Honeybees are literally starving to death.

“Bees are running out of nutrition,” says Walsh. “They usually depend on flowers, wilderness and wild spaces in order to pollinate and gather pollen for their own hives. But because the price of corn and soya bean has gone up so much in recent years, farmers have increasingly been replacing all that open area with crops. As a result, bees are encountering a food desert.

“But honeybees are a key part of agriculture,” stresses Walsh.

According to Time, one-third of honeybee colonies in the USA succumbed to CCD last winter, a 42% increase over the year before and well above the 10% to 15% losses beekeepers used to experience in normal winters. If nothing is done, there may not be enough honeybees to meet the pollination demands for valuable crops.

But more than that, in a world where up to 100,000 species go extinct each year, the disappearance of the honeybee could be the harbinger of a permanently diminished planet.

Indeed, CCD impacts the world’s ability to produce fruits and vegetables that are dependent on pollination, and a world without bees is a frightening scenario.

Around 70% of the world’s fruits and vegetables require pollination by bees. Without this process, farmers would have to imagine different ways to pollinate these crops.

Fruit would be the first casualty. For example, a successful almond crop depends 100% on pollination, apples 90%. Citrus fruits – orange, lemon and tangerine – would see their production halved without the help of the honeybee.

Pears would become a luxury product while exotic fruits would disappear altogether. As for vegetables, crops like broccoli and onion, their extinction would be almost complete. Cereal crops, though, would survive as their pollination is served by the wind.

Disruption to the food chain would be profound, and the consequences dire. Wild flowers would vanish, affecting the planet’s herbivores and birdlife. As a consequence, the ability of carnivores to hunt successfully would be greatly reduced. And humankind would eventually lose the majority of its food resources.

Albert Einstein once supposedly said: “If bees disappeared from the face of the earth, mankind would only have four years left to live.”

“If honeybees ever do disappear, it’s not likely that mankind will follow them in four years,” believes Walsh. “But certainly our dinners would become a lot less colourful and a lot less varied.”

Bees, it seems, are not only fighting for their survival. They are fighting for our survival too.

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