Einstein was reported to have said, “If bees disappeared from Earth, humankind would have no more than four years to live”. As it happens, despite many profound statements Einstein made in his life, this one appears to have no solid evidence - Einstein was a genius physician yet not an entomologist!
It is a question though that leading biologists, economists, entomologists and pollination experts are working on finding an answer for…”just how important are bees to our existence?”
The general consensus is that bees are as important today as ever before. The sad fact is though that bees are seriously declining in numbers and their disappearance in the northern hemisphere is alarming with several species in northern US virtually extinct now.
Are they the “bee” all and end all to human existence though?
In 1976, S.E McGregor concluded that one third of our diet is reliant on insect pollinated plants, with bees providing the large majority of this as expert pollinators. Despite changes in diet over the years, this fact remains.
Insect pollinated crops include almonds, apples, apricots, avocados, blueberries, cashews, coffee, cranberries, cucumbers, eggplants, grapes, kiwis, mangoes, peaches, pears, peppers, strawberries, tangerines, walnuts and watermelons.
Should honeybees become extinct, these food crops will eventually decrease in supply and increase in price, until they will likely become “extinct” too.
This direct, symbiotic relationship with pollination and food provision shows that even if the human race could survive, significant dietary changes would take place with potential knock-on effects.
Why the decline in bee populations?
Studies from Harvard School of Public Health concluded that when bees are exposed to pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, they lose their ability to return to the hive. This condition known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CDD) essentially describes the process where honeybees abandon their colony, as they literally can’t remember their way home.
Secondly, the natural habitats of wild bees are continually being destroyed to make way for development, reducing the amount of rural and forestry land and therefore also reducing the flowers that bees feed on.
Another key reason is due to the varroa mite, which plagues bees. Discovered in Indonesia in 1904, it reached the US transported by humans and literally sucks the blood of bees reducing numbers significantly.
Hence bees are dying from a variety of factors, though largely human inflicted.
How a decline in bees affects economies
In the US, since World War II, the population of honeybees has declined dramatically since
pesticides came onto the agricultural scene; over half the population has disappeared. There was a sharp dip in numbers in 1980’s due to varroa mite and more so in recent years due to
Farmers and corporations alike have tried to do what they can to save the honeybees and their businesses.
Many US farmers rent beehives to support their yield; such is the example of California Almond Board whose estate needed 1 million beehives in 2006 to continue operations, with 2 million by 2012. The almond is California’s number one horticultural export so it is easy to imagine the impact the fall of the honeybee is having on business operations.
Despite attempts to “manufacture” bees, the wild bee is far superior at it’s job that those that are hived – they are sufficient in numbers but lack experience, which slows work!
In addition to bees dying out due in their natural environment, in the 2013 winter, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported 23% of US managed honeybee colonies were lost contributing to a further huge deficit for economies.
Bees in the US alone are responsible for $15 billion in food crop value and without them agriculture would surely collapse.
Helping bee survival
Some organizations prevent back yard bee keeping, something that is contributing, however small, to the continuation of cross plant pollination.
Even having a garden can assist the livelihood and future prospects of honeybee populations. Make your yard pesticide free and you will help save bees.
Every year World Honey Bee Day takes place to raise awareness for the protection of bees. This year August 15 and 22* marked days where groups gathered with an attempt to educate others on what can be done to save bees from disappearing – the theme “Ban ignorance, not honey bees”.
As scientists continue to find alternative pollinators or ways to increase bee populations, why not join in the efforts in protecting bees? There is no better time than now to start reversing the impact humans have inflicted on bee survival, as well as educating others how they can help too.
* - http://www.nationalhoneybeeday.com/home.html