Published on July 15th, 2014 |
by Alasdair Neilson
The Plight of the Bee
Bees occupy a pretty exclusive club. Few animals, let alone insects, transcend our culture more than that of the bee. From Ancient Egypt to the Appalachian Mountains, from being a symbol of royalty to prophesying bad news and predicting greatness, bees litter our folklore and mythology.
Now, in the 21st century, their images adorn T-shirts and mugs, and even provide the name and logo for numerous companies and sporting teams. Their influence goes as far as inspiring architects and social theorists – from Antoni Gaudi’s geometric forms to Le Corbusier’s Urbanism. These industrious and resourceful little insects have made a large dent on humanity’s collective culture.
Yet these compelling creatures are in trouble. Between 2007 and 2008 Britain’s bee population fell by 30%. Whereas most people are probably aware of this decline few are aware that Britain has already lost two of its great bee species: the Cullem’s bumblebee (Bombus cullumanus) was last seen on British soil in 1941 and the short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus) was last recorded in 1988. Both species are still present on mainland Europe but extinct here.
With the transformation of agricultural practices, and the increase in intensive industrial farming, the natural habitat for Britain’s wild bees has been all but destroyed. In fact since the 1930s Britain has lost some 97% of its wildflower rich grassland. But why should we care?
An Economic Problem
The bees’ industrious persona is well-earned. In a good season one hive can produce upwards of 60 lbs of honey. The air-miles needed for bees to make this honey is quite staggering. For each pound of honey produced the bees must fly 55,000 miles – well over one lap around the world.
Yet the bees’ tireless work ethic culminates in more than just their liquid gold. Per annum bees contribute £400 million to the UK economy, in Europe €14.2 billion and in the US $15 billion. Of course these figures do not represent the honey industry but more importantly their role as chief pollinator. This role is so important that at least a quarter of all food consumed in the USA is reliant on pollination by bees. In 2008 the annual earth watch debate stated that out of an estimated 8.7 million species on earth, bees are the most invaluable. Recognising this fact Obama recently announced a multi-agency task-force to try to stem the collapse of the bee, stating that: “Pollination is integral to food security in the United States”.
What is the cause?
In the US many are pointing to pesticides as the key culprit of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). While working in Oregon in 2013, I witnessed the biggest single mass colony collapse ever recorded. In the car park of a small south western Portland Mall 50,000 bees fell from the sky. The number represented some 300 wild colonies. Ironically this all took place in national pollinator week – a week designed to highlight the importance of bees. The results of samples taken from the bees showed that the cause of this mass collapse was pesticides applied to nearby linden trees.
This is by no means the first time pesticides have been blamed for inflicting serious environmental damage. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962 and brought the dangers of pesticides like DDT to the public domain. However, like many environmental problems, it is doubtful that pesticides alone are to blame for the collapse. A combination of the destruction of habitats, the increase in the use of antibiotics by beekeepers as well as pathogens, mites and fungus may all be contributing to the disappearance of the bees.
Is there hope?
There is one factor that could be the bee’s saving grace. The numerous campaigns that have sprung up in recent years in response to the crisis all have one thing in their favour – they all have a tangible, relatable cause: the bee. Campaigns to save the bees benefit from being somewhere in between campaigns to save iconic animals like tigers, elephants, and pandas and campaigns to raise awareness about global warming.
Campaigns to stop the decline of some of the world’s most well-known animals focus on the notion that it would be a travesty to loose these creatures, rather than the effect their extinction would have on humanity. On the other hand, for the global warming campaigners, making people aware of rising earth temperatures and the effects it will have on humanity is exactly what they must do. Rising water levels, more frequent draughts and extreme weather, things that directly affect us, are generally used by campaigners to articulate why we should care about reducing our carbon footprint.
Not only are bees one of our most iconic animals but we are also highly dependent on them. Yes they are cute, cuddly and charismatic but their importance goes much further than their cute caricatures portray. Bees also benefit from the fact that most people have seen them and most people will be able to notice their decline. Much like the way Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring caught the public imagination, campaigners to stop CCD can articulate their cause, and distil it into something that the majority of people can understand and engage with. With whole colony of bees disappearing overnight few can argue that there isn’t something seriously wrong with our bee populations.
Another important factor is that beekeepers are an incredibly well organised group. Type into google ‘bee keeper club’ and your local town or city, and you will almost definitely be assured that there will be a bee keeping club near you. With a network of beekeepers all over the world the campaign to save the bee has a vanguard that can put some serious pressure on politicians and more importantly engage with the public.
The Belgium Nobel Prize winner for literature Maurice Maeterlinck once said that: “If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.” Whether or not he is right, I think we can all agree it is in the best interests of humanity not to test his theory.
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