Honey Bees: A Keystone Species on the Brink

How much of our food supply depends on honey bees? “If the bee disappears from the surface of the Earth, man would have no more than four years left to live.” Albert Einstein? Charles Darwin? Maurice Maeterlinck? E. O. Wilson? Apocryphal? People argue who’s the author of that famous quote, even about the truthfulness of those words. But does it really matter? 4 years or 30 years – humans are entirely dependent on Mother Nature, and the bees are a significant part of our complex ecosystem. Why are bees so important? It can’t get simpler or easier than: “no bees – no food.” The most crucial role of those stinging flying insects is being the pollinators of food plants. Pollination happens when bees collect nectar and pollen from flowers, and that’s their daily activity from Spring to Autumn, from dawn to sunset. They are moving pollen from one flower to another (on their bodies), and when this happens, fertilization is possible, and fruit-carrying seeds can develop. This simple, natural routine makes the bees responsible for over 30% of our food supply. “One out of every three mouthfuls of our food depends on pollinators.” “Crops that depend on pollination are five times more valuable than those that do not,” WWF.  What you want to know about bees:
  • They visit 50 to 100 flowers during a single collection trip
  • They can fly for up to six miles to collect food (nectar and pollen) and can fly up to 15 mph
  • They are the only insect that produces food eaten by man
  • On average, 1 honey bee makes only 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime
  • One pound of honey equals 90,000 miles of trips made by bees (three times around the globe)
  • Bees communicate through scent and dance!
  • Beekeeping can be traced back to 13,000 B.C, that is how early we discovered their importance
Are bees endangered?  Over hundreds of millions of years, many bee species have developed remarkably complex and sophisticated relationships with plants, making their reproduction possible. In recent years, bee populations have been decreasing on a global scale. Many factors contribute to these alarming changes, but mainly it is caused by increased rates of colony collapse, agriculture, and pesticides, but most of all, climate change. With the loss of bees, we could lose many plants in just decades. Pesticides One of the most likely harming products endangering the bee population is a group of common insecticides called Neonicotinoids, used widely in farms and urban landscapes. They are absorbed by plants and transferred in pollen and nectar, making them toxic to bees. Studies have shown that these compounds, even at low concentrations, may cause instant death or alter the regular activity of the bee’s nervous system. In the past few weeks, while writing this article, we have seen fellow beekeepers’ loss of several hives from pesticides used in urban areas. Agriculture Agriculture in the United States has become 48 times more toxic to insects over the last 25 years, primarily due to a controversial, widely used class of pesticides that are particularly harmful to bees. Commercially used honey bees seem to be incredibly stressed by several features of commercial agriculture: pesticides, monoculture, genetically modified crops, and bee management, meaning when they are moved long distances from field to field, exposing them to different pesticides and genetically engineered crops. The increase in stress levels from modern agriculture can cause their immune system to break down. Also, beekeeping itself has become industrialized, which means beehives are chemically treated to kill varroa mites, and the bees are fed antibiotics to fight diseases efficiently. Climate change Not only a threat to the bee populations but also to other pollinators. Changing seasonal temperature trends, water availability, and season length can substantially impact flowering plants. Many species rely on seasonal indications to know when to flower. Historically, pollinators have been in sync with these cycles, but when climate change interferes, pollinators may find that blooming time has already gone or that no flowers are open yet. These complex relationships are difficult to predict, and their interruption directly impacts our ecosystem.  Protect the bees Luckily, there are only a few bee species classified as endangered. However, the many sudden changes to their environment brought by climate change pose a real threat to the rest of the bee species. Their importance for our own survival makes it essential to find ways to protect them. How can we do that?  There are simple actions that each one of us can do. Plant some flowers (preferably different, with different blooming seasons) in your garden, balcony, windowsills, so bees have access to nectar all year round. Bees love traditional cottage garden flowers and native wildflowers like primrose, buddleia, and marigolds. Talk to your friends and family about the importance of bees and how cool they are. Use your social media to spread information about the harm of pesticides. Learn about organic methods to manage your garden, or for the most courageous among you, get a bee colony.   Find a beekeeper’s organization in your area and get to know your local beekeepers. And, if you’re genuinely inspired, become a beekeeper like I did this year. Kasia Buchta & Jay Weiss Los Angeles, CA www.instagram.com/kasia.and.bees

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