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 normal6. The decline in bee numbers is a negative indicator for the future quality of human life and our planet at large. So, why are bees important to biodiversity?
There are over 20,000 species of bees on our planet. They are essential for pollination, which is vital to all life on Earth. Simply put, plants cannot reproduce if they are not being pollinated. Only when this process is completed can these plants create seeds, grow and provide us with food. And while bees are not the only insect pollinators, they are one of the most vital. They are crucial in pollinating wild 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 crops humanity grows (providing around 90% of the world's nutrition) are pollinated by bees (Greenpeace). This includes many of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables that we depend on for food. Without bees, we would be seriously impeded in our ability to feed humanity.
Bees are in trouble. Today, we have already lost many bee species. In the UK alone, 13 species of bee 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 bees and a complex range of variables all contribute. Like us, the complex weather and habitat changes of our climate crisis impact bees.
Wilderness areas, meadows, and hedgerows when lost can have a huge impact on 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 where humanity has degraded the environment, and where less biodiversity is found.
The use of harmful pesticides and other pollutants in non-organic farming and gardening is one of the key issues for bees. Pesticides such as neonicotinoids are applied to crops to control and kill the pests that plague them. The problem is, they also harm bees.
Harmful pesticides and pollutants act upon a bee's central nervous system. This can cause all sorts of 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 grow7.
These toxins remain in the environment for years. They infest the plants and become absorbed by the soil. They not only pose a threat to wildlife but also humans. Toxins may eventually spread through land, waterways, and the air to affect entire ecosystems.
Neonicotinoids use, combined with the stress placed on bees by mono-crop agriculture and farming practices, reduce survival in honey bees1. Some of these harmful pesticides (such as neonicotinoids) have been banned in Europe, but they are still in widespread use 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 disorder4 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 CCD5.
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 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.
Farmers and food producers can help to protect bees and other wildlife not only by growing organically, without harmful chemicals but also by adopting a range of other agroecology approaches. We can all aid in their efforts by supporting those who are growing food more sustainably.
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 think about where and how natural fibers for clothing and textiles were grown, and about how all 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 a range of different 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 to do is to seek out changemakers who are doing important work for bees. Reaching out and working with like-minded people can help you to make a difference.
Here are some groups to look at:
From planting a small bee garden to requesting policy changes, our collective efforts are needed. When you consider 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 are in many ways dependent on the work we do to protect the bees.
|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|
|EPA.gov: Colony Collapse Disorder|
|Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO): Why Bees Matter.|
|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.