Guest blog by Sam Hadadi,
We like to keep abreast of research, which is why we're looking here at the results of a recent study concerning pesticides and the possible effect to bees........
Nature in all its glory and with its beautiful eco-systems, is a pretty complicated thing. It is a delicate balance that can easily be thrown by us humans.
Pest control in farming has become a growing problem for our beloved wildlife, with mounting evidence showing that neonicotinoid insecticides (also known as neonics, and a similar class of pesticides to nicotine) is causing a big problem for bees.
For the last 18 years, scientists have been conducting a huge study on the controversial "neonicotinoid" pesticides – and the results are enough to concern us all.
Doing what bees do!
These same pesticides, which are used by farmers to ensure healthy, flourishing crops, have now been linked with “large-scale population extinctions” of wild bees. In fact, they’ve been shown to have “sub-lethal” effects on our buzzing friends. It’s ironic, when you consider that those same farmers need more than a helping hand from bees to pollinate the crops they treat in the first place...
So, after years of suspecting that pesticides may be hurting our bumble bees, how did scientists set about proving it? Well, throughout the study, they looked at nearly 32,000 surveys of 62 wild bee species that were carried out across England between 1994 and 2011.
They then went one step further by looking at the effect of the first widespread use of neonicotinoids, which were used to protect oilseed rape seeds in 2002 from the cabbage stem flea beetle.
The researchers wrote: “Our results provide the first evidence that sub-lethal impacts of neonicotinoid exposure can be linked to large-scale population extinctions of wild bee species, with these effects being strongest for species that are known to forage on oilseed rape crops.”
Worse still, while wild bees have seen a decline in recent years, the study found that this was three times worse for those that often feed on oilseed rape, compared to those that forage on wild flowers. In fact, for five species investigated, (including the spined mason bee and the furrow bee) the news was even worse - neonicotinoid use was linked to at least a 20 per cent of local population extinctions.
Scarily, the worst affected species (the sharp collared furrow bee) saw its population plummet by 45 per cent between 1994 and 2011. While other factors could be to blame, researchers believe that neonicotinoids are to blame for 31 percent of the fall.
As lead author of the Nature Communications paper, Dr Ben Woodcock, said: “As a flowering crop, oilseed rape is beneficial for pollinating insects.
“This benefit however, appears to be more than nullified by the effect of neonicotinoid seed treatment on a range of wild bee species.
“Although we find evidence to show that neonicotinoid use is a contributory factor leading to wild bee species population decline, it is unlikely that they are acting in isolation of other environmental pressures.
“Wild bees have undergone global declines that have been linked to habitat loss and fragmentation, pathogens, climate change and other insecticides.”
The NFU (the National Farmers’ Union) insists that it’s necessary for farmers to use neonicotinoids, or some other form of pesticides.
Dr Chris Hartfield20, the NFU’s “bee health specialist”, said: “This study is another interesting piece to an unsolved puzzle about how neonicotinoid seed treatments affect bees.
“It does not show that neonicotinoids are causing widespread declines in pollinator populations and it certainly does not show that neonicotinoid use has caused any extinction of bees in England.”
Yet, the use of neonicotinoids has been concern enough to see them restricted by the EU and even banned outright in some areas (take the US state of Maryland, for example), because of their links to the decline in bees.
Last month our very own government refused an application by the NFU to use the pesticide. However, there is growing concern from environmental campaigners that these restrictions could be lifted after the UK leaves the EU.
We'll watch with interest to see how this plays out.
For now, let's look at why we need bees.
All About Bees
It might surprise you to think that nearly all of your food has been made with the help of bees.
While it seems obvious that our favourite honey comes from our flying friends, many of our most beloved eats and treats started out with the humble bee. From those juicy blueberries topping your overnight oats, to your staple coconut oil, much of your daily diet could not exist without the bee.
Blueberry and Oat Smoothie
Like many of you, we are buzzing about caring for and saving the bumblebee. But why are they so important? And why are they disappearing so quickly?
It’s thought that everyone’s favourite brainiac Albert Einstein once said about bees:
“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”
Tomato, Basil and Feta Quiche
Nobody can be entirely sure whether or not he actually did utter those words. But what scientists can agree on is this – whoever said it is right. The bee is crucial to our everyday lives.
In fact, so many of us fear the downfall of the bee that a YouGov survey1 found that the decline in bee numbers is seen as the most serious environmental issue around - and it's one that concerns the whole political spectrum (a massive 85% of Brits see bees dying as a huge problem).
Bees are pretty amazing things, you see. They keep the world and its habitats happily ticking along, without ever stopping to take all the credit. They’ve done this for as long as we can remember, too.
In fact, there are 20,000 year-old cave drawings that depict images of honey hunting, while those clever ancient Egyptians transported their hives along the Nile to pollinate crops. They even buried their beloved and precious pharaohs with containers full of honey to sweeten the afterlife.
Honey does more than whet the appetite and appeal to our sweet teeth - its antibacterial and antiseptic properties have been used medicinally for centuries. Even beeswax was once used to embalm the dead and create artificial light.
But what else are bees good for, and why is it so important that we learn how to protect them?
As you now know, bees are brilliant sources of food. In fact, one in every three mouthfuls of what you swallow is dependent on bees for pollination2. If we were to lose the bees, that’s truckfuls of our favourite foods that would disappear into oblivion – and, worryingly, our most nutritious produce, too.
Yet, how does pollination work? And why are bees so crucial to the process?
Chickpea Flour Pizza
Well, as you probably already know from your biology lessons, pollination is crucial in plant reproduction. Essentially, it means that those beautiful flowers in gardens and fields across the country can make egg cells, which grow into seeds which create the rainbow of fruits and vegetables that we love to pile our plates with.
Of course, this transfer of pollen doesn’t always happen thanks to bees. Pollination can also be caused by the wind, birds, bats, mammals. However, insects such as our flying furry friends, the honey bee, pollinate on a huge scale.
You see, hairy, fluffy bees are pretty much designed to pollinate. Stand and watch a honeybee or bumblebee on a flower, and you’ll soon see the orange balls of pollen on their back legs.
After fertilising flowers, these will be taken back to the nest or hive to feed the young.
Bee hard at work
Thanks to this clever design of nature, the humble little bee is responsible for pollinating 84% of crops grown for humans3, including apples, peaches, onions, avocados, beans and many types of nuts. They also pollinate coconuts (yep, that means no more Lucy Bee if bees were to die), cocoa (no more chocolate), and other oils, including sunflower.
Heck, these flying wonders even pollinate tea and coffee!
Of course, there would also be no sweet, sticky honey without bees, too. Made by bees passing nectar back and forth in their mouths (Honey bees must gather nectar from two million flowers to make just one pound of honey) before sealing it in a honeycomb, honey is actually intended to use for the bees’ winter food stores. However, us humans love honey too – interfere with bees at your peril!
As if this weren’t enough, consider what else would happen if bees were to disappear. Crops grown for livestock, including cows and chickens, would also vanish. The cotton we use to manufacture clothes would also be gone, while the British economy would take a nosedive – back in 2009, it was estimated that bees provided £200m in service in Britain, and pollinated a massive one billion pounds worth of products4.
Yep, they’re not just responsible for our food - bees also beautify the planet. We all love to admire blankets of flowers, or ancient trees. But where would they bee (sorry!) without these tiny insects?
Bees help to keep the world photogenic and breathtakingly beautiful by keeping flowers pollinated, boosting floral growth and creating habitats for other animals, such as birds.
The importance of bees
What’s more, the decline in bees could also wreak havoc on ecosystems. Without them, many animals would go without food or protection from the environment. In fact, if bees were to disappear, the creatures that inhabit many tropical forests, woodlands, and forests wouldn’t survive because the production of seeds, nuts, berries and fruits are highly dependent on insect pollination.
Without bees, there would also be a lack of biodiversity. Are you picking up a pattern here? Without bees there would be not much at all. As conservationist John Muir said about the importance of bees:
“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
Astonishingly, there are 25,000 different bee species5 around the world. Yet despite the plethora of bee varieties, many of them are slowly dying out.
In the UK alone, honeybee winter losses have ranged from 10% to 33% since annual surveys began eight years ago6. In fact, in the 1950s, there were over 50 native species of bee in the UK – now there are just 25, with the rest becoming extinct in our country7.
So, why are our bees dying? And what can be done to save them?
Insecticides and Pesticides
Scientists and environmentalists are always buzzing with ideas about what’s killing our bee population but none of them have been proven. However, what looks almost certain is that our use of insecticides and pesticides are harming our lovely bees (see above study).
While farmers may need to use these chemicals to protect their crops – our food – from harmful pests, they could also be killing all manner of harmless insects, including bees. What’s more, the green-fingered among us will be familiar with commercially-available products to protect our beloved flowers and trees, but have we ever stopped to consider what they could be doing to our beautiful bees?
Just last year, studies proved that the “mysterious” disappearing of honeybees could be linked to insecticides. Harvard University whizzes showed8 that exposure to two of the world's most widely used insecticides led to half the colonies studied dying, while none of the untreated colonies saw their bees disappear.
The habitat that wild bees depend on to nest and forage is also increasingly disappearing. In fact, since 1945, 97% of wildflower meadows in the UK have vanished – during the same period of time two bumblebee species have become extinct9, while globally, a quarter of the world’s 250 bumblebee species are thought to be facing some degree of extinction risk10.
When bees live in such close-knit quarters as hives, disease can also be a major problem to these busybody colonies. Just imagine the damage one diseased or sick bee can do to an entire population. It could be so huge that some scientists have even linked bug-bearing bee parasites to Colony Collapse Disorder, a problem discovered in America when entire colonies of bees simply died for no clear reason.
This year, news reports also linked the plummeting bee numbers to environmental stress11. Scientists believe that when honeybees are under stress, they’ll take it fairly easy and instead send out the youngest (and therefore most inexperienced) worker bees to forage for food. These bees are then more likely to die prematurely than older workers.
Poor winters and colder weather may cause us Brits to moan but they’re a problem for our beloved bees too. In the summer of 2015, scientists said that the country's rollercoaster climate could be to blame for 15% of bees being wiped out last winter12. Chilly temperatures can lead to a lack of plants and good-quality pollen, with bee colonies in the west of the UK worst affected. Worryingly, bee losses in 2014 soared from 9.6% the previous year.
Cooler weather and poor summers can also confine bees to the hive, meaning they become weak and easy targets for parasites. Of course, there could be many other reasons for bee decline – scientists in India13 have even suggested that mobile phone signals could wreak havoc with a bee’s inner sat nav…
So, now we know that bees are in danger – and that they’re crucial to our planet, can we save them? If so, what can we do?
Happily, there are plenty of things all our fellow bee lovers can do to save this precious insect. Here are our Lucy Bee favourites:
Even if you’re not particularly green-fingered, there’s lots you can do to get the bees buzzing. UK bees like certain types of flower, such as poppies, fruit trees, lavender and shrubs, so why not try filling your garden with these insect-loving plants? You could even try digging in a wild flower patch as many bees thrive on these types of plant.
Encourage bees into your garden
Want to know more? Well, the perfect bee garden should contain plenty of pollen-rich plants, with different varieties to ensure you’ve got flowers all year round. These plants should also be planted in groups or clusters wherever you can to make them easier (and less tiring) for our little pollinators to find. It goes without saying that you should avoid pesticides, too – here’s a handy list14 of the ones known to be dangerous to bees.
You could even try creating a bee nesting box or bee hotel15.
Go organic with our Turmeric Hummus
We now know just how damaging pesticides and insecticides can be to these little insects, so why fuel it? Wherever possible, buy organic fruits and vegetables – by supporting these, you’ll be backing crops, farms and wildlife that help our flying friends!
Give Them Sugar Water
A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but it can also help to revive tired, hard-working bees. To reward these busy creatures, simply mix two tablespoons of granulated sugar with one tablespoon of water, then place in a small container among your bees’ favourite flowers.
Here at Lucy Bee, we’re extremely passionate about inspiring the next generation to love nature. Start as young as you can and get them outdoors and exploring nature – it’ll have the added benefit of tiring them out for naptime, too!
Our favourite ideas on how to get them loving bees include creating a bee or insect garden together, teaching them how to identify the bees and explaining the role they have in nature, or simply getting out into the countryside and get observing! You could even get crafty and create your own bees for the house.
Why is this so important? Well, we think this quote from Bradley Miller sums it up perfectly:
"Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar."
Support the Bee Economy
We are huge fans of using local, raw honey in our diets – and for good reason! As a healthier substitute for sugar in cakes and bakes, honey is packed with antioxidants. And it can prevent hayfever16 too!
Better still, buying bee products will help to support our furry, flying friends. Just follow the advice of Winnie the Pooh17 and be sure to be local.
Become a Bee Keeper
If you’re feeling inspired, why not start keeping your own bees? You’ll have your own honey on tap, your garden will look beautiful, and you’ll be happy in the knowledge that you’re keeping bees safe and well!
Bee keeping isn’t expensive and there’s a wealth of information online to get you inspired and teach you how to do it. However, a word of warning – there have been studies which suggest that many (up to 77% in fact) home-reared bees can be contaminated with dangerous diseases18. Yes, your urban beekeeping could be doing our precious friends more harm than good, with experts even saying it can put pressure on natural varieties as the food chain is out-swamped19.
If you’re feeling unsure, leave it to the experts and install your own mini bee garden instead!
If this has got you buzzing and you want to know more about how to save bees (Winnie the Pooh, eat your heart out!), then we love the following resources. Happy reading!
5. Bees species
6. Loss of bees
11. Bees in danger
18. Keeping bees
About Lucy Bee Limited
Lucy Bee is concerned with Fair Trade, ethical and sustainable living, recycling and eating close to nature with additive free products for health.
The views and opinions expressed in videos and articles on the Lucy Bee website/s or social networking sites are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of Lucy Bee Limited.
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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.