Pollinators are the lifeblood of ecosystems everywhere. They help plants reproduce, increase biodiversity, facilitate the dispersal of species into new regions, maintain genetic diversity within plant populations, increase fruit yields, and thereby support flora and fauna at every level of the food chain. Bees are amongst the most important pollinators of all—particularly when it comes to supporting humans.
In Europe alone, bees pollinate 84% of commercial crops and 4000 vegetable species. Of the 100 crops that provide 90% of human food worldwide, bees pollinate 71. By pollinating commercial crops, bees contribute $1.6 billion USD annually to the EU economy, $52.2 billion each year to the Chinese economy, and $29 billion to the US economy. So farmers throughout the world depend upon bees for productive crops, just as people everywhere rely upon bees for affordable food.
Of course, although research tends to focus on the impact bees have on human cultivated crops, the ecological importance of bees extends far beyond commercial species. However, in recent years declining bee populations have lead to decreased floral reproduction, lower fruit yields, and less biodiversity—causing immediate impacts at the lowest levels of the food chain, which in turn radiates out to countless other species.
Watch this video to learn more about why bees matter
In 2006, beekeepers in the US began reporting a mysterious disappearance of honeybee colonies. Rather than finding dead bees, keepers found their hives suddenly and inexplicably abandoned. Within 3 months, more than 22 states were affected. In the years since, the phenomenon often called Colony Collapse Disorder has been reported in Egypt, China, Europe, USA, Japan and the Middle East.
As GreenPeace's official report on the decline of bees states:
It has often been suggested that bee decline can be at least partially explained by the fact that insecticides can disorient bees to the point that they leave the hive and simply never manage to find their way back. Imidacloprid, Thiamethoxam, Clothianidin, Fipronil, Chlorpyriphos, Deltamethrin, and Cypermethrin have all been listed by GreenPeace as posing serious threats to bees.
Increasing temperatures are known to have a significant effect on bee populations in various countries. Warmer climates have seen bees begin their activities 7 to 10 days earlier than normal per decade, however the flowers they need to survive bloom a little later, thus posing a risk of extinction. Climate change in general has seen the amount of floral resources available to bees drop significantly in recent years.
Many researchers believe that a new generation of tobacco-based insecticides called neonicotinoids are a primary antagonist in the decline of bees. Neonics (as they’re often known) insinuate themselves into plants’ vascular systems, emerging in pollen and seeds. They linger in the environment longer and degrade more slowly than previous generations of insecticides—and a recent study demonstrated that colonies exposed to high levels of neonics produce 85% fewer queens.
The forces of globalization and human population expansion, more broadly, pose another threat to bees. The Varroa Mite is a perfect example. In the 1960s, it appeared in Japan and the USSR. By the 1970s, it had spread, carried by humans, throughout Eastern Europe. In 1971, it appeared in Brazil and within a decade had infested all of South America. In the 80s it found its way to Poland, France, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Portugal, the US, and Canada. Finally it arrived in the UK, New Zealand, and even Hawaii. Today, it is the deadliest parasite in the history of commercial beekeeping.
Along with neonicotinoids, there are a vast array of pesticides and insecticides that are known to contribute to bee decline worldwide. While there have been some recent measures taken to ban certain culprits, with the EU leading the fray with a ban on neonicotinoids in 2013, there is still widespread use of bee-harming chemicals across the world.
While data on bee losses is largely restricted to the northern hemisphere - with the USA losing around a third of its colonies on average in recent year on year reports and bee decline hitting an alarming 50% in some European nations - there is little denying that the decline of bees is a global issue. Recent reports have mentioned a sudden 25% drop in bee colonies in Japan, while in parts of China, chemical use has seen bees disappear altogether.
The map below depicts worldwide use of chemicals belonging to the carbamate, organophosphate, carbofuran, endosulfan and neonicotinoids classes – five pesticide and insecticide families that have been known to contribute to the decline of bees in recent years. While there have been suggestions that honey bee numbers worldwide are in fact on the rise, pesticide exposure in a variety of environments does see the health and survival of bee colonies worldwide struggle. Hover over a country to see how countries worldwide are tackling the decline of bees with bans or restrictions on these harmful chemicals.
Hover over a country to view information on bans on key bee-harming pesticides.
Today, it is estimated that the global economic benefit of natural pollination is about $326 billion, while honeybee pollination in the US alone generates about $29 billion—making bees the world’s most economically important pollinator.
Without bees, fruit and vegetable prices would skyrocket globally, and higher food prices would force more people into poverty. This is likely to create widespread malnutrition, and probably increase starvation deaths globally.
Biodiversity makes ecosystems more resilient and ensures their sustainable productivity, and bees are a crucial catalyst in the process of biodiversification. 90% of wild flowering plants depend on animal-mediated pollination, and hundreds of plant species depend upon specialized bee pollination.
The disappearance of even a single type of bee-pollinated plant species could potentially collapse entire food chains, killing insects, birds, and the mammals who depend on them. Biodiversity is the cornerstone of our nutrition, our medicines, and our ability to fight off viruses, parasites, and pathogens. Without biodiverse ecosystems, human health would be seriously compromised.
If current farming and land management patterns degrade the environment to the extent that it can no longer support pollinators, a widespread food chain collapse is likely. If the bees go extinct, we might too.
The decline of bees crisis is already a noted issue around the world, with many governments and institutions undertaking a wide range of bee-saving campaigns. Here are just some of the campaigns in action around the world:
Of course, the help doesn’t stop with these global campaigns, and people getting involved worldwide can make a real difference in saving those bees. From building your own bee houses to planting bee-friendly plants in your garden, here are some things you can do to get involved:
Watch the video below to learn how to build your own bee house
Dr. Richard Comont, of the Bumblee Conservation Trust, kindly allowed us to ask him some questions on the decline of bees and to offer his expert insight into how exactly you can get involved.
What can people do in their daily routines to get involved? Do you have any general lifestyle or habitual tips to help the bees?
Probably the best thing people can do in their daily routines is help increase our knowledge of what species are where by recording their sightings of bees, or even by joining in with monitoring schemes such as the Bumblebee Conservation Trust's BeeWalk project.
BeeWalks is certainly a wonderful idea to allow the public to get involved. Do you know of any citizen projects that take place around the world?
There's a variety of monitoring schemes of various kinds around the world - for wild bees, Ireland has the National Biodiversity Data Centre's Bumblebee Monitoring Scheme, and the USA has several run by the Xerces Society and the USGS. For honeybees, there's dozens of recording and monitoring schemes all over the world - wherever you are, there's likely to be one nearby!
What can we do to make our gardens more bee-friendly?
To make gardens more bee-friendly, people can plant a mix of flowers which produce pollen and/or nectar throughout the bee flight season (roughly March-October), to provide enough food for bees to survive and thrive. Also, gardeners should try to reduce their use of pesticides and herbicides as much as possible - all broad-spectrum pesticides can kill non-target species such as bees, while many weeds are great food resources.
How easy is it for people to get involved in practical activities such as making bee boxes in their gardens? What else can they do in this department?
Very easy! The best way to get started - and one of the most effective - is to make a home for solitary bees. You can get started by drilling holes into a piece of wood facing roughly south. A variety of sizes of hole allows for different species, but around 8-10mm is best for many of the commoner species. Even easier, just tie a bunch of bamboo canes together and suspend them against a south-facing wall or fence.
Do you think enough is being done worldwide to raise awareness and help with the issue? What would you like to see more of?
Public awareness of the problem is probably at an all-time high, but there's still plenty more that needs to be done - recording bee sightings and making gardens more bee-friendly are the two major things that help massively, but are things which anyone can do.
Are you hopeful that we’ll be able to reverse the effects and see a change in the decline?
I'm mostly optimistic. The conservation movement has had plenty of notable successes, such as the reintroduction of the Large Blue butterfly in the UK, and I'm hopeful that the current public awareness of bee declines, and anger at the apparent causes, can be harnessed to reverse the current declines and get the countryside buzzing once more.