Albert Einstein is thought to have predicted that “if honeybees become extinct, human society will follow in four years”. If that statement seems hyperbolic, consider the fact that bees pollinate 70 of the 100 or so crop species that feed 90% of the world.
Without these vital insects, it’s thought that the world would struggle to sustain its population of 7billion people – and yet the number of bees in England alone dropped by more than 50% in the decade leading up to 2010. The honeybee population has also collapsed in the US, where they are responsible for an estimated $40b agricultural economy.
Now, an alarming new study has confirmed what is behind the shrinking number of bees worldwide, in what has been called “a watershed moment in the fight to protect our bees”.
The landmark research, published in the respected peer-reviewed journal Science, identifies widely used insecticides as damaging to honeybee and wild bee colonies. The Guardian reports that entire landscapes were found to be contaminated by a toxic “cocktail effect” of multiple pesticides, combined with insect repellents known as neonicotinoids.
The multi-billion dollar pesticide market had already been repeatedly linked to the decline in the world’s bee population. Other suspected causes are loss of habitats and disease.
However, until now there had been little solid field research into the damage insecticides were causing to entire bee colonies.
The studies took place at 33 large farm sites across the UK, Germany and Hungary, where bees lived among oil seed rape fields that had been treated with the insecticides. Scientists discovered that wild bees struggled to reproduce in all three countries as insecticide exposure increased.
In addition, fewer honeybee colonies survived when exposed to insecticides in the UK and Hungary. Insecticides were not found to have as serious an impact on the honeybee population in Germany, because these bees foraged much less on oil seed rape and had lower levels of disease.
A second study, carried out on Canadian corn farms and also published in Science, found that contaminated wildflowers were the main source of neonicotinoid exposure for bees, as well as deliberately sprayed crops.
“The horror story is clear: we have contaminated our land and water with persistent neonicotinoid pesticides,” said Matt Shardlow, CEO of the charity Buglife.
Professor James Nieh of the University of California San Diego said that the two studies made “strong contributions to the growing scientific consensus about the harms of neonicotinoid pesticides to bees”.
Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist Doug Parr, meanwhile, said that the European study marked “a watershed moment in the fight to protect our bees”.
He added: “The case for a permanent ban on these pesticides is now unassailable, and our politicians will have to take action.”
However, farmers and pesticide manufacturers claimed that the results of the studies were inconclusive, and argued that more research was needed to validate a ban.
Neonicotinoids are currently banned on flowering crops in the EU, and a total ban is expected to be introduced this autumn. However, the Conservatives have indicated that they will try to block the ban.
What can you do to help the bees?
- Buy local honey. Local honey helps local beekeepers to cover the cost of protecting bees and keeps food miles down – so you’re helping the environment in all kinds of ways. Some people also believe that local honey helps to protect against pollen-related allergies such as hay fever.
- Turn your garden into a beautiful bee oasis. Pay a visit to your local garden centre and find out which plants are indigenous to your area. Single-flowering plants such as daisies and marigolds are particularly bee-friendly, as well as being easy to look after. Stick to natural pesticides and make sure to include a ‘bee bath’: a shallow container of water filled with pebbles and twigs for them to land on while they’re quenching their thirst. Don’t have a garden? Invest in a window box instead.
- Adopt a beehive. If you’re not keen on the idea of becoming a beekeeper yourself, you can help support British bees by sponsoring a hive for £36 a year from the British Bee Keepers Association. You’ll receive a jar of honey, a packet of wildflower seeds and some Burts Bees lip balm, among other treats.
For more tips on how to support your local honeybee population from the British Bee Keepers Association, click here.