It’s a short week this week, well in South Africa anyway, so I thought I would do a short piece this week. I may be wrong but out of all the insects scuttling and flying around this great planet of ours, BEES are probably the most popular ones (putting aside those irritating mosquitoes and cockroaches who are the villains of the insect world). We have made certain catch phrases such as the ‘sit down son we need to have a talk about the birds and the bees’ or ‘that person is such a busy bee’. Hollywood even made an animated bee movie called ‘The Bee Movie’ and let’s not forget… honey is delicious.
Many people may be allergic or scared of bees and so may stay clear of bees or want to kill them if they fly too close, however bees play a very important role in ecosystems across the world. Wild bees provide important pollination services to wild plants and to crops in farming landscapes. In some instances, wild bees can solely fully pollinate crops, and bee richness can enhance the area and stability of pollination. However, growers often rely on the managed honey bee (Apis mellifera) to provide crop pollination. Across the globe, the pollinator that is principally managed to enhance farming production is the honey bee (Apis mellifera), however other species of bee are used in certain contexts as well (e.g. the leafcutter bee Megachile rotundata). The honey bee, which has been thoroughly studied compared to other bee species, has been recorded to increase yield in 96% of animal-pollinated crops.
Pollination services rely on both domesticated and wild pollinator populations of bees, both of which may be affected by a range of recent and projected environmental changes, for example habitat loss and climate change, with unknown ramifications for pollination service delivery. Other consequences bees face are insecticides and pathogens. The impacts of various human activities on populations of bees and on their habitats have been studied, especially in Europe, where long and detailed records have been kept (Westrich, 1990). Impacts in Europe include forestry, cultivation patterns, pollution, drainage, irrigation, construction, parks as refuges, urbanization, herbicides and insecticides, road traffic, weed invasions, and host plant destruction. Farming intensification is also a big problem.
Main Causes of the Bee Decline
In recent years, many beekeepers from European and American countries have been documenting about unusual bee death rates and high honey bee losses. In France, one molecule was indicated as the main reason for these damages, imidacloprid, particularly in its formulation of the pesticide Gaucho. French and Italian beekeepers documented that hives placed near sunflowers (in France) and maize (in Italy), arose from seeds dressed with Gaucho which show high levels of damage due to a steady decline in the hive populations (the so called “disappearing disease”), until the complete loss of the colonies.
Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is a current, penetrating syndrome affecting honey bee (Apis mellifera) colonies in the Northern hemisphere, which is shown by a sudden disappearance of honey bees from the hive. Some scientists and beekeepers suspect pesticides to hold a central place in colony-weakening processes or at least in interaction with other stressors. In modern cereal agriculture systems, honey bees are readily exposed to pesticides because they rely heavily on common blooming crops, such as rape seed oil (Brassica napus), maize (Zea mays), or sunflower (Helianthus annuus), that are now routinely treated against insect pests. Systemic pesticides in particular diffuse throughout all the parts of the plant as the plant grows, and finally contaminating the nectar and pollen. Searching honey bees are therefore directly exposed, but so is the rest of the colony as returning bees store or exchange contaminated material with other hive members.
Some species of bees are solitary but others live in large swarms. An infected bee may transmit pathogens and parasites to others in the colony
Over the past 50 years, the global proliferation of the ectoparasitic mite (Varroa destructor) has caused the death of millions of honey bee (Apis mellifera) colonies. There is general agreement that the mites’ link with a number of honey bee viruses is a contributing factor in the world’s collapse of honey bee colonies, due to the spread of mites has facilitated the spread of viruses. The mite (Varroa destructor) poses the largest worldwide threat to the honey bee, (Apis mellifera). The problem is most acute in temperate regions with bees of European origin, where the majority of colonies die within a few years if the population growth of the mite is not controlled. The large populations of mites (V. destructor) that build up in European colonies are associated with a large range of secondary diseases, and the strong effects of the mites in temperate climates have been linked to virus infections. Bees infected by V. destructor as pupae show reduction in body weight, hemolymph volume, hemolymph protein content (hemolymph is like the blood in the bee’s body). Other bodily characteristics are degenerated fat bodies and underdeveloped glands. The workers also may start foraging earlier in life, and their longevity is shortened.
What is being done
The Keystone Policy Centre meets and facilitates the Honeybee Health Coalition, which brings together a variety of organizations from across the spectrum. Corporates of the farming sector such as Monsanto and Syngenta, non-profits like the Foundation for the Preservation of Honey Bees, universities, and state departments of agriculture. Together, these institutions are working on four main areas: forage and nutrition, hive management, crop pest management, and public participation.
The EU placed a temporary ban on the use of the three key neonicotinoids pesticides on some crops in 2013. However, the new plans are for a complete ban on their use in farming, with the only provision being for plants entirely grown in greenhouses. The proposals could be voted on as soon as May and, if approved, would enter force within months. The 2013 ban went ahead after those nations opposing the measure, including the UK, failed to secure enough votes, however, since that time the UK government seems to have softened its opposition, having rejected repeated requests from British farmers for “emergency” permission to use the banned pesticides.
A group of Japanese researchers have succeeded in applying a pocket-sized drone to pollinate a flower, taking the first steps towards creating a safety net for the world’s flora as honeybees continue to die at a rapid rate. It involves attaching horsehair bristles to a remote-controlled drone the size of a power adapter, and coating the bristles with a special type of gel that enables them to collect pollen from flowers and distribute them as a honey bee (Apis mellifera) would. Let’s hope it doesn’t reach that stage.
A study done in Chicago found that increased human population density meant a decrease in bees and pollination due to less green areas and more streets and buildings.
What can we do to help Bees thrive?
- Don’t kill bees just because you’re scared or allergic to them, rather stay calm and move away slowly.
- Put more native plants in your garden so that the flowers will attract the bees, be sure to put a variety of shapes sizes and colors.
- Try buying food such as fruit and vegetables that are organic or don’t use pesticides.
- If you’re up to it and have a large piece of land maybe offer some bee real estate. You can either build your own bee house or buy them online.
- Teach your children and yourself and others about the importance of bees. They are not dangerous insects and will only sting you as a last resort to defend themselves. You leave them alone and they will leave you alone.
- When buying honey, make sure to purchase from local beekeepers and avoid honey made in surplus quantities from supermarkets.
Take home Message
Bees play an important role in ecosystems and in agriculture. Without bees and other important pollinators our entire food source from fruit to vegetables and honey will disappear and so if they disappear… we disappear. So let’s spread the word and do as much as we can to save these precious pollinators.
I would like to thank the Facebook group, South African Wildlife Photographers for all their photographs of bees that were sent to me so generously. I will put all the pictures sent to me in my photo gallery on the blog once it is installed completely thank you.
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