Bees play a crucial role in the complex ecosystems of our planet. Unfortunately, they are under threat. Human-driven change means that present species extinction rates for bees and other pollinators are 100 to 1,000 times higher than usual. The decline in bee numbers is a negative indicator of the future quality of human life and our planet at large. So, why are bees important to biodiversity?
There are over 20,000 different species and types of bees on our planet. They are essential for pollination, which is vital to all life on Earth. Simply put, plants cannot reproduce when not pollinated. Only when this process is completed can these plants create seeds, grow and provide us with food.
As many facts about bees highlight, while bees are not the only insect pollinators, they are one of the most vital. They are crucial in pollinating wild species and managed plants. Bees perform about 80% of all pollination worldwide. They keep our planet's precious ecosystems growing and thriving.
Seventy out of the top one hundred food crop species humanity grows (providing around 90% of the world's nutrition) are pollinated by bees (Greenpeace). This includes many fruits, nuts, and vegetables we depend on for food. Without wild bee species, we would find our ability to feed humanity seriously impeded.
Bees are in trouble. Today, we have already lost many bee species. In the UK alone, 13 species of wild bees have been lost since 1900, and a further 35 species are threatened. Across Europe, nearly 1 in 10 bee species face extinction.
The picture is a complex one. More than one factor threatens bee populations, and a complex range of variables all contribute. Like us, our climate crisis's complex weather and habitat change impact bees.
When lost, wilderness areas, meadows, and hedgerows can considerably impact all wildlife – including bees. Large-scale agriculture involves the plantation of mono-crops and the depletion of plant diversity. Our ever-growing cities and demand for land resources destroy the wild environments on which bees depend. Meanwhile, climate change is altering our landscapes and environments at an unprecedented rate.
Habitat loss makes it harder for bees to find food and shelter. Other stressors have a more harmful effect when humanity has degraded the environment, and less biodiversity is found.
The use of harmful pesticides and other pollutants in non-organic farming and gardening is one of the critical issues for bees and other pollinating insects. Pesticides such as neonicotinoids are applied to crops to control and kill the pests that plague them and maximize food production yields1. The problem is that they also harm bees.
Harmful pesticides and pollutants act upon a bee's central nervous system. This can cause various behavioral and systemic issues relating to navigation, feeding, and more. Eventually, it can kill them. Seeds coated in such substances grow into plants that will continue to poison bees and other wildlife as they grow5.
These toxins remain in the environment for years. They infest plant species and become absorbed by the soil. They pose not only a threat to wildlife but also to humans. Toxins may eventually spread through land, waterways, and the air, affecting entire ecosystems.
Neonicotinoids use, combined with the stress placed on bees by mono-crop agriculture and farming practices, reduces survival in honey bees. Some of these harmful pesticides (such as neonicotinoids) have been banned in Europe, but they are still widely used elsewhere.
The varroa mite is a parasite that attaches to honey bees and drinks their blood. These mites can quickly spread through a hive bringing pathogens and disease. Once present in a colony, they can kill it in just a couple of years.
Researchers have found that they are one of the leading causes of colony collapse disorder in the US2. Unfortunately, as well as posing a threat in and of themselves, varroa mites also make honey bees more susceptible to issues surrounding pesticides and environmental changes.
CCD is the name given to a phenomenon that occurs when the majority of the worker bees in a colony disappear, leaving behind a queen, plenty of food, and a few nurse bees to look after the remaining immature inhabitants of the hive. This phenomenon has been more widespread in recent decades and is a cause of concern for beekeepers and agricultural producers, who rely on honey bees to pollinate their crops.
Unfortunately, we do now know the exact causes of CCD. The current consensus is that several factors in combination, either additively or synergistically, cause the problem. The mechanisms, whereas not fully understood, include factors such as:
are all potentially implicated in CCD4.
One of the things that are necessary for bees (and humanity) to survive is a complete overhaul of mass agricultural practice. The farming industry has a lot to answer for when it comes to habitat loss and the loss of biodiversity that we have experienced over the past decades.
Bees are important for biodiversity, but biodiversity is also important for bees. When large mono-crop plantations dominate the landscape, managed with chemicals, drained, and/or tilled, natural biodiversity is diminished3. We find these qualities typical of intensive farming to feed our growing population demands.
Farmers and food producers can help protect bees and other wildlife by growing organically, without harmful chemicals, and by adopting a range of different agroecology approaches. We can all aid in their efforts by supporting those growing food more sustainably to help arrest the global decline of bees.
As individuals, wherever we live, what we choose to buy has a huge impact. We should not only try to choose local, seasonal, and organic food. We should also consider where and how natural fibers for clothing and textiles were grown and how our purchases have affected land use.
More directly, we can all help bees by doing what we can to reduce our negative impact on the global and local environment in various ways. This includes:
There are several simple steps to take to help protect bees where you live. These include:
If you want to do something to help bees, then another great thing is to seek out changemakers doing important work for bees. Reaching out and working with like-minded people can help you make a difference.
Here are some groups to look at:
Considering how much bees do for the ecosystem, we cannot afford to lose them. The quality of our oxygen, the food we eat, the survival of other species, and several bio-diversity issues depend on the work we do to protect the bees. Our collective efforts are needed, from planting a small bee garden to requesting policy changes.
|Tosi Simone, Nieh James C., Sgolastra Fabio, Cabbri Riccardo and Medrzycki Piotr Neonicotinoid pesticides and nutritional stress synergistically reduce survival in honey bees 284Proc. R. Soc. B http://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2017.1711|
|Integrated Pest Management, University of Missouri, 2013. Colony Collapse Disorder, the Varroa Mite, and Resources for Beekeepers|
|Alison McLaughlin, Pierre Mineau, The impact of agricultural practices on biodiversity, Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, Volume 55, Issue 3, 1995, Pages 201-212, ISSN 0167-8809, https://doi.org/10.1016/0167-8809(95)00609-V|
|EPA.gov: Colony Collapse Disorder|
|Tosi, S., Burgio, G. & Nieh, J.C. A common neonicotinoid pesticide, thiamethoxam, impairs honey bee flight ability. Sci Rep 7, 1201 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-01361-8|
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.