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Issue 255
July/August 2009
Sacred Planet

Frontline

The Plight of the Bumblebee
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Cover: Cownose Rays Photograph: Sandra Critelli

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The Plight of the Bumblebee

Life as we know it could be wiped out if one species of insect vanishes from our countryside. Ruth Rosselson looks at what’s being done to prevent this happening.

MOST OF US have been unaware of the importance of the bumblebee, the honeybee and other members of the bee family, but this needs to change fast because billions of bees worldwide are dying and scientists are baffled as to the exact reason. Bees are a lot more important than we might realise. Their function in pollinating plants is crucial for ecosystem health – and for our dinner plate: they pollinate a third of all the foods we eat. In the UK, seventy crops rely on or benefit from bees. The succulent taste of raspberries could become a memory, and we’ll have to say goodbye to runner beans altogether if bees continue to disappear.

There’s already evidence that in large fields with less bee-friendly hedgerows crop yields are reduced because of fewer bees. According to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, the economic value of commercial crops in the UK that benefit from bee pollination is estimated at £165 million every year. Bees are important pollinators of our wild flora too, which insects, mammals and birds rely on for their survival. Fewer bees means less wildlife. The English countryside could look very different in a few years, experts predict.

What’s happening?

Concern about bees has arisen as a result of falling bee populations worldwide. In the past two years, around a third of hives were lost in the US, with reported losses in other countries including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece, Brazil and Argentina. Such losses cannot be sustained. If they continue to decline at the same rate, it’s estimated that by 2035 there could be no honeybees left in the US.

Scientists are currently searching for the reasons for the decline in bee populations. In the US, losses are blamed on something called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which is a collection of symptoms including the total disappearance of all bees from a hive, for which there appears to be no one single cause. CCD was first noticed in the US during 2006 and although it is thought that it hasn’t yet reached the UK, our bee populations are still declining. The British Bee Keeping Association estimates that a third of the UK’s 240,000 honeybee hives were lost during the winter and spring of 2008. This compares to an expected ‘normal’ loss of 5–10%.

A number of factors are thought to be behind the bees’ decline:

• Disease: Bee colonies are vulnerable to disease because hives are densely packed, enabling viruses and other infections to spread rapidly. The biggest threat comes from the varroa mite, which arrived on these shores seventeen years ago and is the cause of death of most wild

honeybee colonies. This mite attacks honeybee pupae and honeybees alike and kills a colony in two to three years.

• Climate change: It’s not just humans who dislike the wet and cold summers of late. Such conditions prevent bees from foraging for food and has also affected the plants they rely on.

• Loss of habitat: In the UK, flower-rich grasslands have declined by 97% over the last sixty years. It’s a loss that has affected bumblebees particularly keenly.

• Genetic narrowing: This has happened through selective breeding. More docile bees that produce good honey yields may be more susceptible to pests and disease.

• Insecticides: The rise of industrial farming practices has seen an increase in insecticide and pesticide use. A group of pesticides known as neonicotinoids have been implicated in the deaths of honeybees in Europe. These chemicals act on the central nervous system and can cause paralysis in insects, leading to their death. The chemicals build up in pollen, which bees take back to the hive to feed their young, leading to birth defects and development problems. Tests in Germany found that twenty-nine out of thirty bees examined had a build up of clothianidin, a neonicotinoid. Consequently, German authorities suspended the use of the toxin. Sadly, Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has recently ruled that these chemicals will not be banned from the UK. This decision bizarrely coincides with the opening of the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects, and follows Benn’s announcement of £4.3 million funding to try and save the British honeybee. The danger of neonicotinoids has been recognised by other European governments, but in the UK, with one of the least effective systems of pesticide safety in Europe, official advice is that neonicotinoids are ‘safe’ to use.

• Cell-phone radiation: Scientists have recently claimed that radiation from mobile phones and other technology could be implicated in the death of bee colonies, due to interference with their ‘homing’ mechanisms.

What is certain is that more research is needed into the causes of bee decline to enable us to take effective action.

What can we do?

There are a number of campaigns to improve the plight of bees:

• Save our Bees is a website co-ordinated by the British Science Association in collaboration with the British Beekeepers’ Association, giving information about bee-friendly plants and what individuals can do to help.

www.saveourbees.org.uk

• Ironically, given the possible links between pesticides and bee deaths, Operation Bumblee is sponsored by biochemical company Syngenta as well as by supermarket giant Sainsbury’s. The project is planning to sow 1,000 hectares of special bee-friendly plants in farms across the UK, aiming to establish habitats rich in the traditional flowering species that bees rely on.

www.operationbumblebee.co.uk

• WildCare is a conservation programme sponsored by Associated British Agriculture and supermarket Waitrose and involving farmers, food processors and retailers. It aims to help British wildlife flourish through conservation work including sowing flower-rich habitat and reducing the amount that hedgerows are cut on British farms. www.wildcare.co.uk

• Plan Bee is the Co-operative Group’s campaign which includes awareness-raising events showing the film Return of the Honeybee, the banning of neonicotinoids from its own farms, the donation of £150,000 to support further research, and the planting of a wild-flowers alongside crops on its farms. www.co-operative.coop/planbee

Take action now!

There are a number of things that you can do to make a positive difference:

• Write, email or telephone Hilary Benn to petition him to ban the use of neonicotinoids in the UK. Telephone: 020 7238 5339 Email: PS.Hilary.Benn@defra.gsi.gov.uk Write: Nobel House, 17 Smith Square, London SW1P 3JR.

• If you have a garden, plant wild-flower seeds to encourage bees and provide essential nutrition for them. You don’t even need a whole garden to make a difference – planting in pots or window boxes will still be helpful.

• Reduce the use of pesticides in your garden or go completely organic – and buy organic food.

• Provide shelter for bees by buying a bee house. Or go even further and become an amateur beekeeper. For advice and information visit www.britishbee.org.uk

• Contact your local authority and ask them to plant bee-friendly plants in public spaces.

• Join the bumblebee conservation trust: www.bumblebeeconservationtrust.co.uk/join.htm

• Read A World Without Bees or the review of Günther Hauk’s Toward Saving the Honeybee at www.resurgence.org.

Return of the Honeybee will be released in cinemas later this year.

Ruth Rosselson is a freelance writer specialising in environmental issues.

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