Bees: Brilliant, Beautiful and Under Threat
Did you know that bees can be found on every continent except Antarctica? There are over 20,000 different types of bees and 276 species in the UK alone. You can’t beat a sunny day in the garden sound-tracked by the gentle hum of bees, as they happily go from flower to flower collecting nectar. Not only are bees fascinating and charming, they also perform a very important job; pollination.
However, bees are under threat like never before. Read on to learn more about these amazing creatures and find out what easy actions you can take to help protect them.
It is estimated that one third of the food we eat has been produced with the help of bees. Many of the fruit and vegetables we eat, as well as crops fed to livestock, rely on insects for pollination. According to the Soil Association, around 70 crops in the UK alone depend on or benefit from bee pollination. Pollination by bees and other insects is valuable too; it is estimated that it would cost British farmers around £1.8 billion a year to manually pollinate crops currently pollinated by insects. Manual pollination is already happening in some places, such as Szechuan in China, where natural pollinators have disappeared due to industrial farming.
Bees, and wild bees in particular, are considered to be one of the most effective pollinators because they operate on such a large scale. Whereas other pollinators (wasps, flies, beetles, moths, and some birds, bats and lizards) visit flowers for food, bees feed themselves and pick up supplies to take back to the hives or nests.
Honey, Health and Beauty
In addition to the great job that they do pollinating plants and trees, honeybees also produce honey and other useful by-products, such as beeswax, pollen and royal jelly. These products have valuable medicinal properties and are widely used in both the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.
Bees are seen as so vital to our food supply and continued survival, as well as that of countless other creatures and organisms, that they are considered a keystone species. Without bees ensuring the fertilisation of so many plants and trees, whole ecosystems containing species which rely on those plants could collapse.
Globally, there has been a severe decline in bee populations. In the UK alone, 35 species are under threat of extinction. There are a number of factors contributing to this decline. Climate change is causing extreme weather and changing seasons; increasing temperatures are enabling the spread of pests, diseases and invasive species, such as the Asian Hornet which eats honeybees. Urban encroachment and industrial farming have led to habitat destruction and loss of food sources for bees.
What’s more, the use of toxic pesticides has been hugely harmful to bee populations. Exposure to pesticides, even if not fatal (and many of them are), can adversely affect bees, disrupting their navigation, behaviour, ability to learn and egg production. Which is why a recent decision by the UK government to allow the use of a previously banned pesticide is a major cause for concern.
What’s the issue?
Back in 2018, as a result of campaigns across Europe, the EU finally banned the use of neonicotinoids, pesticides which are widely recognised as harmful to bee populations. This was great news for bees and other pollinators, which are vital for pollinating three-quarters of the world’s crops.
When the UK government took the decision to support the Europe-wide ban it was acting on advice from its own advisory body on pesticides, which said “scientific evidence now suggests the environmental risks posed by neonicotinoids – particularly to our bees and pollinators – are greater than previously understood, supporting the case for further restrictions.” And Michael Gove, the environment secretary at the time, promised the UK would keep the ban in place after Brexit. Since the ban in 2018 further research has revealed that neonicotinoids are also harmful to animals in rivers and streams, in addition to having devastating impacts on bees and other pollinators.
However, literally days after the UK officially left the EU, our Conservative government has u-turned on this pesticide ban and decided to allow the use of neonicotinoids on sugar beet, after lobbying by the British sugar industry. Specifically, our government has announced an “emergency derogation” to allow sugar beet producers in England to use sugar beet seeds that have been treated with thiamethoxan, a toxic neonic.
The government has done this despite promises that the UK’s environmental protections would not be weakened after Brexit. I see this as a worrying sign that other EU environmental regulations will be watered down in the UK now that we’ve left the EU, especially as the government is under pressure from the agricultural industry.
The government is justifying its decision to allow the emergency use of neonic treated seeds because sugar beet crop yields have been decimated by something called yellows virus, with farmers making average losses of 30%. Yellows virus is caused by aphids, which have proliferated due to mild winter weather – in other words, the problem is a consequence of climate change.
Sugar beet farmers say that as the seeds themselves are covered with the insecticide and the crop itself isn’t sprayed, plus sugar beet plants do not flower, the risk to pollinators is minimal. They also argue that British sugar is more environmentally-friendly than imported sugar, which has a higher carbon footprint and is usually grown with more chemical input than crops produced in the UK.
However, a major concern of many environmental organisations including The Wildlife Trusts, The Soil Association, Pesticide Action Network, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, is that neonicotinoids, which are systemic pesticides, get into soil, dust and our water systems.
Another concern is that under the rules of the exemption, farmers using neonic treated seeds must use herbicides (ie. weedkillers) to destroy any flower strips near the sugar beet fields, to stop insects coming close. This in turn will negatively impact wildlife in the surrounding area. This illustrates that the government is well aware of how harmful neonicotinoids are, but has taken the decision based on economic factors regardless of the environmental impact.
It seems a very backward step to be encouraging the use of harmful chemicals in the face of the climate and ecological crises, at a time when farmers urgently need to be supported to adopt non-chemical methods and to work with nature, not against it. Using neonicotinoids is a temporary fix for a problem that is probably going to get worse due to climate change. Ultimately, we need to be turning to regenerative farming practices to restore balance.
So, what can YOU do about it?
People are outraged that the ban has been overturned like this. As a result, in the last few days there has already been a massive response to petitions calling on the government to cancel the “emergency derogation”. It was in part thanks to ordinary people signing petitions that the original ban came about, so if enough of us sign the following petitions and write to our MPs, there’s a chance the government will see sense and do the right thing in reinstating the ban.
Please take a few minutes to add your name to these petitions and email your MP:
What else you can do to help bees
1.Fill your garden with bee friendly flowers. Try to grow a range of flowers over the seasons from spring bulbs through to late flowering shrubs. Here’s a great page on what to plant for bees and pollinators.
2. Provide shelter. Different bees have different types of nests. You can buy ready-made bee hotels or make your own out of bamboo canes. Or how about building a compost heap? Bumblebees like to nest in warm, dark places, often underground and sometimes choose compost heaps. If you are lucky enough to have a bumblebee nest in your compost heap, remember that nest will die by August or September so you will still be able to use your compost.
3. Leave out water. If you don’t have a pond in your garden, consider leaving out a shallow dish of water for bees to drink. Fill it with some pebbles so the water is not too deep and bees can drink safely.
4. Support organic farmers and food producers. According to the Soil Association, 50% more plant, insect and bird life can be found on organic farms.
5. This probably goes without saying, but don’t use pesticides!