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To stay in contact during isolation my friends and I have been doing a weekly quiz night via video call, which is great fun and a much needed slice of normality. There is almost always a nature round, and recently a question about declining bee populations came up. This has claimed many headlines for years now, but through the quiz I discovered some people were out of the loop and didn’t actually know bees are disappearing, whilst others couldn’t say much more about the problem other than they’re declining. This got me thinking about how the media bombards us with human issues, while nature often takes the sideline unless it’s a sensationalist story. Today many people don’t buy newspapers or watch the scheduled TV news, relying instead on social media or word of mouth for updates (especially younger generations). With this in mind, it’s easy to see how important information can be missed and SciComm is as important as ever for disseminating news through social media, which is an outlet becoming increasingly used as an information source. This post is for anyone similarly out of the loop on bees and should give you a quick overview of the issue!
Expectation: There are a few species of bee, the honeybee and bumblebee. They’re black and yellow. They make honey. They die when they sting you.
Reality: There are >16,000 species of bee (some say around 25,000). They come in different colours. Only some species make honey. Most don’t die after they sting you, and some don’t sting at all.
Bees have been declining for years, and this is a BIG deal. There are approximately 250 species of bumblebee (bombus), and they are one of the most important plant pollinators. Pollinators are very important indeed: they provide an ecological service that facilitates reproduction of about 75% of the world’s flowering plants and more than two-thirds the world’s crop species*. Yep, they’re that important. The economic value of bees to agriculture (because of the pollination service they provide) is estimated at around $70 billion, annually*. These are of course different to the wild bees that are disappearing, but it makes sense why the decline has been covered so much in the news – lots of other animals are declining, but not all of them are linked to money.
Many bee species have declined, both in range and abundance, and conservation status of many more is unknown. Bumblebees in particular have declined in Europe, North America, South America and Asia. Why? A variety of reasons: widespread use of pesticide, habitat loss and introduced diseases, to name a few. Intensified agriculture is certainly one factor, as wide expanses of countryside have been stripped of flowers to make way for pastoral land. Habitat loss isn’t just happening in the fields, either; more and more people are choosing to have fake plastic grass with a few tidy flowerpots, instead of real lush gardens filled with flowers. Councils are mowing verges by carriageways, motorways and pavements: replacing pretty stretches once ablaze with buttercups, daisies and the like with slabs of uniformly cut grass. A prime example of health and safety gone mad and a useless waste of manpower; once you notice this, it becomes infuriating and impossible to unsee.
Recent research published in February 2020 has found climate change is also a culprit. The research analysed a large dataset of bumblebee occurrences across N. America and Europe, and found that unusually hot days resulting from climate change is increasing local extinction rates, reducing colonization and site occupancy, and decreasing species richness regardless of land-use change or condition. This means climate change is driving extinction risk, as temperature and precipitation are exceeding bee species’ tolerances.
In April 2019, researchers from University of Maryland and Auburn University released survey results showing that 40.7% of US beekeeper colonies had died unexpectedly between 2018 – 2019. The year before, this figure was 33%. Bees are dying at an ALARMING rate, and this particular research points to a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids – chemicals widely used by farmers to kill off anything that might eat the crops. The bees don’t ingest the crops, but it still affects their central nervous system and is carried back to the hive on their bodies with the nectar, infecting the others. Erratic weather patterns caused by climate change, including unusually severe winter weather, are also impacting bee survival.
What Can YOU Do to Help the Bees?
- Go chemical free: don’t use pesticide, herbicide, or synthetic fertilizer in your garden – these all wreak havoc on bees’ delicate systems. Instead, use organic material like supplementing your soil with compost instead.
- Plant some flowers in your garden, or if you’re there long-term and have the space, why not a tree or two.
- Write to your council to urge them to leave a strip of wild grass on verges.
- Create a Bee Bath: bees get thirsty collecting nectar, so fill a small birdbath or bowl with water and arrange pebbles and stones inside so they break the water’s surface.