Keeping Bees Busy: Complex Issues and the Global Decline of Bees

This post was shared by Rachael Taylor on 15th June 2015.

The decline in the population of bees, nationally and globally, has been much reported in the media over the past couple of years. Bees are important pollinators, transferring pollen from one plant to another. Due to their role in pollinating plants bees are essential for food production. Therefore, the recent international discourse and the ongoing research being done around the world regarding the decline of bees is relevant to some of the topics of interest to BSUFN and associated members.

There are multiple complicated causes of the decline in bee populations cited by scientific research, bee conservation activists and the media. This post will briefly outline some of the issues which are relevant to some of the discussions being held within BSUFN.

Pesticides and Policy Intervention

Agrochemicals have been widely disucssed in relation to the decline in bees globally. Pesticides are now known to be damaging to the health of numerous bee species, as well as butterflies and other insects which are beneficial for pollination and crop health. In particular, neonicotinoid insecticides have been identified as contributing to the decline in bee population. Some of the agrochemical manufacturers even admit that neonicotinoid insecticides are damaging the health of bee colonies.

Bee with WillowThe loss of bees as pollinators threatens crop production. With research showing the significant impact neonicotinoid insecticides are having on bees, in 2013 the European Union (EU) took steps to limit the decline in bee populations by banning certain pesticides. This is a significant policy intervention to contribute to EU efforts to support the health of bee populations. EU restrictions on pesticide use are among the strictest in the world.

However, this policy raises some practical, financial, and ethical questions within the food system. In 2014, the first year since the ban on neonicotinoids came into force, farmers throughout Europe reported widespread damage to crops caused by pests (for example, as reported in The Guardian here). The ban on pest-killing chemicals meant that crops were destroyed and yields were lower.

So, the questions centre around the relative value of the loss of the global bee population and the value of the crop yields lost to pests. In this context value refers not only to monetary value but also the subjective pratical and moral value of the production of food required for humans to survive and of biodiversity and species conservation.

At a time when the need to increase food production globally is widely recognised, is it more important to secure crop yields by using pesticides to feed the growing population and undernourished? Should society allow the continued use of pesticides in the knowledge that they may eventually result in the extinction of bees? Or should we focus on protecting bees as pollinators to secure long-term sustainability of food production? Would there be more value in developing technologies which do not damage bees but also secure crop yields? In my opinion, it is not possible to answer these questions. Partly because they are subjective questions and every individual will have their own thoughts, and partly because the issues of food production and the decline in bees are vastly more complicated than allowing or banning the use of neonicotinoid insecticides.

Other Problems, Diverse Solutions

Another cause of the decline in bees is a worldwide increase in monoculture, where fields are planted with a single crop, and increase in size of fields, sometimes thousands of hectares of just one crop variety. Monocropping significantly reduces the biodiversity of these fields which in turn significantly restricts the suitable habitat and food sources for bee species.

Some activists call for a widespread adoption of agro-ecological methods to crop production. This would include growing a variety of crop types together, including cereals, vegetables, and fruits. Some also argue for ecological pest management such as using natural predators to eat crop pests rather than the use of chemical pesticides.

Bees and honeycombBees are also prone to diseases and infestation from bee-killing mites. In particular, an Asian mite, Varroa destructor, has been a cause of widespread loss of bee colonies throughout Asia, Europe and the Americas in the past couple of deacdes. This cause of bee decline has been researched and reported more widely in the USA and appears in fewer media reports in the UK, although the histroy of breeding bees to be resistant to the mites began in the UK a century ago.

In the USA there have been efforts to develop genetically modified varieties of bees which are resistant to Varroa destructor. Others argue that the mites will in turn become resistant to the modified bees and suggest that bee species should be left to evolve resistance on thier own. This raises more un-answerable questions on the value of technological advances versus evolution.

There are a number of ways in which science and technology are contributing to the challenges of food production and protecting bees, whether through genetically modified bees, pesticide-tolerant bees, or crops which are resistant to pest without the need for chemical pesticicdes. However, the vast literature on the topic suggests that technology alone will not be sufficient to meet the dual challenge of increasing food production now and sustaining production in the long-term by ensuring bee populations thrive.  There will also need to be a range of shifts in farming practices, well-informed policy interventions, conservation strategies, and civil society action. There need to be multiple, diverse and widespread efforts to sustain food production and bee species in our diverse and ever-changing world.

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