This is an article I wrote for Garden News a few weeks back. Garden News have taken the lead on talking about the bee issue, which I think as many people as possible should be conscious of. After I wrote this article more figures came out following research carried out in bee hives across Britain. Almost 30% of colonies perished this year. The normal mortality rate is about 5%. UK honey supplies are dwindling and may run out by December this year, not being replenished until summer next year. Its also bad news for the pollination of vital crops. Some people are saying that bad weather is responsible, keeping bees in the hive, where they become more prone to infection from viruses and attack by deadly mites but as yet there is no definitive scientific explanation.
A World Without Bees
If climate change doesn’t get you, the honey bees will – this is the rather gloomy message of a book I read recently entitled somewhat alarmingly A World Without Bees. As the title suggests it is not the presence of a new mutant killer bee that’s going to do us all in but the absence of honeybees that could trigger our demise. As some 90 commercial crops owe their continued existence to the pollination services provided free of charge by the honeybee it’s easy to see why a world without honeybees would indeed be a disaster.
Which is why Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum’s new book on Colony Collapse Disorder – a honeybee ‘plague’ which has already killed millions of bees worldwide – is important.
Over the course of the last two or three years many bee keepers around the world have arrived to inspect their hives in routine checks, only to find them abandoned, apart from a few dying or dead bees lying near-by or in the hive itself. The cause of such vanishings is not yet known but post mortems carried out on victims’ points to a number of viruses and the aptly named parasitic mite Varroa destructor as possible culprits. Apart from the distress these losses cause to the bees and beekeepers the disappearance of the bees can spell disaster for the farmers that rely on them to pollinate their crops.
You only properly appreciate how busy bees are when you try and photograph them. Unlike some insects that seem to have time to pose for the camera – what are they waiting for I wonder – bees are on or in a flower, out and off to the next before you know it, and most of the time before you’ve had time to zoom, click and capture.
The bees have their fill of nectar and move on. Each time they go to a new flower they deposit a little bit of pollen from one plant to the next, allowing those plants to form seeds and reproduce. A very busy colony of honeybees can visit three million flowers every day.
A World Without Bees asks us to imagine how much of our own labour we would have to provide if we had to pollinate all these flowers ourselves. And gives us a picture of life for people whom already do. In the southern Sichuan province in China, whose entire population of honeybees were wiped out by pesticides, thousands of people pollinate their tree crops by hand, ‘holding bamboo sticks with chicken feathers attached to the end, clambering among the blossom-laden branches of their pear trees.’
Pesticides aren’t blamed for Colony Collapse Disorder (which is different to the problem in China), but they may play a part in reducing bee immune systems, making them more likely to suffer from stress and disease. So far no one has an answer to the problem, we only know it’s going to be a disaster if it carries on getting worse.
So what can we gardeners do? Well we can’t solve CCD. We’ll have to leave that to the scientists and policy makers, but we can do as much as possible to make our own gardens hospitable for other pollinators that aren’t affected by it – bumble bee and other wild bee species, moths and butterflies, hoverflies and many other beneficial species. Next time I’ll show you how.
A World Without Bees, Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, Guardian Books