Bee Afraid

This is, for want of a better description, a backup article for the class magazine in college. If something extra is needed (very doubtful) this should plug a gap. Most likely it’ll end up elsewhere with a different intro that doesn’t reflect the ‘end of days’ theme of the mag. It’s about bees. Please forgive the pun. I have a sick fascination with puns, I blame my Dad for bringing home the Star or the Sun everyday when I was a child. 

 

Picture the end of the world and you’ll probably envisage a gloriously destructive Armageddon. Nuclear war, plague or an asteroid the size of the moon spring to mind, but extinction doesn’t necessarily work that way. The dinosaurs appeared and disappeared in the most dramatic and definitive of circumstances, mass extinction. Other animals slowly vanished as their habitats shrunk.

Most recent extinctions can be attributed to human encroachment upon animal populations. The same can be said for currently endangered animals such as the giant panda, or the altogether less glamorous bee.

A 2010 UN report found that “Human activities have impacted the landscape through fragmentation, degradation and destruction of natural habitats. [These] are considered as key adverse changes for pollinator populations”

The pollinator in question is the humble bee. For those not concerned with conservationism, the decline of bee populations is likely of little concern. Animals have died out before without any majorly adverse effect on people.

 

The bee is very different. It might be callous to suggest that the baiji river dolphin or the quagga aren’t important, but their extinction pales in comparison to the effect bee extinction could have on human life. In recent years a phenomenon known as ‘colony collapse disorder’ (CCD) has seen a pre-existing decline in bee colonies rapidly accelerate.

Bee numbers are in decline across the planet. What was first discovered in US is occurring in Europe and Asia, and has begun to appear elsewhere in the world. One of the problems facing both scientists and governments is that the cause of the decline is unclear.

The 2009 documentary ‘Vanishing of the Bees’ placed the blame on pesticides, criticising governments for being more concerned with chemical producing companies than beekeepers. The reality is somewhat more complex. On top of pesticides factors such as parasites, pollution, diet, disease, habitat degradation and climate change have been linked to CCD.

Even measures taken to halt the decline have made matters worse. Large-scale hives have been built to breed bees but they encourage disease. The movement of bees from farm to farm in an attempt to improve pollination has only helped spread infection further.

Use of chemical pesticides has made bees more susceptible to disease and parasites. Chemicals have also contaminated the plants and then spread to bees through pollination. The weakened immune system of bees, thanks to a number of environmental factors is now thought to have allowed diseases and parasites to spread more easily.

One such parasite is extremely worrying for researchers – the varroa mite. This tiny species essentially sucks the blood of bees, and spreads in colonies. It can destroy a colony in three years if it is left unchecked, and it has become immune to medication developed to kill it.

 

Varroa mites are simply part of the larger problem however. Even air pollution is of concern as it causes the bee’s sense of smell to be hampered. The factors are so numerous that entomologist May Berenbaum told ‘The Scientist’ magazine that “We may not have the smoking gun, but we found the bullet hole.” Identifying CCD is progress, but attempts to stop it have been unsuccessful thus far.

This article began with reference to the end of the world though, not bees, so why should you be concerned? Firstly, because according to the same UN report mentioned earlier “a sixth major extinction of biological diversity is underway. Certain natural ecosystems are vital for human societies.”

Pollination is one of these vital ecosystems and bees are the principal means by which pollination occurs. To put it succinctly, 100 crop species provide 90% of the global food supply. Over 70 of these species are pollinated by bees.

Executive Director of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), Achim Steiner, outlined just how important bees are at the publication of the report. “Human beings have fabricated the illusion that in the 21st century they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature. Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less dependent on nature’s services in a world of close to seven billion people”.

Food prices are likely to rise if CCD continues to affect bees. Beyond that, if bees were to disappear entirely it would be likely to lead to the extinction of many flower and tree species. According to Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, authors of ‘A World Without Bees’ “A third of all that we eat, and much of what we wear, relies on pollination by bees. So if – or when – the world loses its black-and-yellow workers, the consequences will be dire.”

 

Changes are being called for to stop the loss of bees. Wild flowers planted around agricultural fields and the creation of new habitats are potential methods which may be implemented. Existing habitats also need to be protected. Alison Benjamin however, questions what can actually be achieved, even if research into CCD offers a solution.

“What exactly are they going to do when they finally understand what many of us already know – that stress factors are compromising the bee’s immune system so they are unable to fend off the mites, viruses and fungal diseases? Tell the agrochemical companies to stop producing harmful pesticides? Tell US farmers to produce their crops more sustainably rather than planting mile upon mile of the same crop?”

Benjamin’s fears are understandable. The decline of bees is not going to cause a dramatic, sudden mass extinction event. It won’t see us all dead by the end of 2012. It could however, have enormously damaging consequences for the global ecosystem and lasting detrimental effects upon an ever-growing world population.

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