Bees make more than honey – they are key to food production because they pollinate crops. Honeybees, bumblebees, wild bees and insects like butterflies, wasps, and hoverflies are responsible for pollinating at least 35% of the crops we eat, including our favourite fruit and vegetables like apples, pears, onions and carrots, as well as enabling up to 90% of wild plants to thrive. 80% of European wildflowers require insect pollination. Many of them such as foxglove, clovers and vetches rely on bees.
But currently, more and more bees are dying. There is a 2% decline in insects every year. A world without pollinators would be devastating for food production. Why is this decline happening and how can we help bees and other pollinators to recover?
The trigger for the decline in bees is man
Loss of habitat, urbanisation, intensification of agriculture, insecticides and herbicides, monocultures, parasites, pathogens and climate change all play a part in declining bee and insect pollinator numbers.
Urbanisation means fewer green spaces with bee-friendly plants, which when combined with the intensification of agriculture has led to a loss and fragmentation of valuable habitats for pollinators, such as grasslands, old fields, shrublands, forests, and hedgerows. This is thought to be the major cause of decline in wild pollinator numbers.
Since the 1940’s industrial monocultures have replaced polycultures full of biodiversity. Monoculture farming means that only single varieties of plants are cultivated over large areas, which then all bloom at the same time. This is great for the bees during those flowering times, but during the other months of the year they can struggle to find food.
Not all bees are the same. There are over 20,000 known species of bee globally. Around 270 species of bee have been recorded in the UK. Only 1 of these is the famous Honeybee. Wild bees, in contrast to the honeybee and the bumblebee which live in social colonies, are loners and build their nests in tree trunks, snail shells, crevices and holes in the ground. They undertake all work from nest building to brood care themselves. About 30% of the wild bee species find their food only on certain plant species and are in symbiosis with them. This means that plants and wild bees benefit from each other. If these plants are no longer sufficiently available because other plants are more profitable, the bees are unable to feed on their ideal food source and if they then die the plant cannot survive either. As a result, not only the bee dies, but also the plant biodiversity decreases. Therefore, it is very important that we protect the diversity of plants and thus also the wild bees.
Biodynamic farming uses open-pollinated seed. This is seed that is renewable, it can be saved by farmers and growers for the next year and used to naturally breed new varieties which helps to ensure diversity
Pesticides are harming bees and other insects, after all that is what they’re designed to do. There has been a rise in pesticide use over recent times, with farming becoming heavily dependent on pesticides. The average field is treated with pesticides 17.4 times a year in the UK.
In Biodynamic agriculture soil preparations containing oak bark are applied to the soil. The tannins contained in it help to repel insects
Parasites like the Varroa mite have been identified as a major cause of bee colony loss. Agro-chemical companies claim that industrial chemical pesticides, including neonicotinoids, play an almost negligible role in bee death. However, studies show that pesticides undermine the immune system of insects, making them more susceptible to disease, parasites and pathogens which in turn significantly weakened honeybees, causing high mortality and high levels of stress. In addition, the use of pesticides contaminates the soil.
In order to fight the mite, only organic acids are used in biodynamic beekeeping
What we can do to protect bees & other pollinators
Bees are a fantastic symbol of nature. That they are in trouble is a sign that our natural environment is not in the good shape it should be. Whilst over 60% of crops such as wheat, millet, rice, potatoes and bananas are wind pollinated or self pollinated, a world without vegetables and fruit would result in diets that would be dull, poorer and less nutritious. Ecological, organic and demeter farming offers a solution for the global pollinators and agriculture crisis. Ecological farming ensures healthy farming and healthy food for today and tomorrow by protecting soil, water and climate and by promoting biodiversity. It does not contaminate the environment with chemical inputs like synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilisers nor genetically engineered organisms. Ecological farming is feasible and already practiced on a large geographic scale within Europe.
What we can do as gardeners to help bees
There are things that we can do at home to make our gardens as bee-friendly as possible:
- Put away harmful chemical insecticides.
- Leave a small area of your garden to go wild or undisturbed in the summer months, so bumblebees can create their nests and other insects are given shelter.
- Provide habitat such as a small wood pile in a corner where bugs can nest and feed. Build (or buy) a simple home for solitary bees.
- Grow a wide range of plants that flower throughout the year to ensure there are no hunger-gaps. Ivy flowers during the autumn months, a crucial time for bees as they build up their stores for the winter. Spring bulbs will provide an early source of food as will hazel and pussy or goat willow.
- Choose bee-friendly plants. Honeybees prefer open, daisy-like flowers such as cosmos, sunflowers and michaelmas daisies, asters etc. Verbena bonariensis is also a favourite. Bees also love herbs such as marjoram, mint, chives, fennel, lavender and thyme and will help pollinate your veg and fruit.