A large number of bees are dying world wide due to pesticide pollution and global warming. The dying of bees is a very bad news for thousands of plant species. And it is not only bees, but other insects that are dying as well. The death of bees is making news because they are used on a large scale in commercial honey production and commercial pollination. And what does the death of bees mean? It means, not just the shortage of honey, but scarcity of food in general. How? Read on.
“If bees don’t buzz, we humans will fizz” – Gurudev
Pollination by insects = reproduction in seed plants
Flowers bloom in plants so that insects like bees can sit on them to drink nectar. In this process, the pollen of the flowers gets attached to their legs, mouth parts, hair, and other body parts. When insects visit other plants, these pollen are carried with them to flowers of other plants, where they help in pollination. This enables the plants to produce seeds and reproduce.
A large number of insects, including bees, butterflies, moths, etc help thousands of species of plants to pollinate and reproduce. Without pollination by insects, a large variety of plant species will die and become extinct.
It is not only Honey bees, but other bees like Bumblebees, Solitary bees, Stingless bees, Carpenter bees, Orchard bees, Squash bees, that act as natural pollinators of these plants. Bees pollinate the seeds of a wide variety of plant species that include but are not limited to the list mentioned below.
There are more than 20,000 bee species, and many of them are specialized pollinators. In other words, many bee species prefer flowers from a single plant species. Without these bee species, those specific plant types will be completely wiped out.
An incomplete list of Plants pollinated by bees
- Nuts like Cashew, Almond, Brazil nut, Chestnut
- Vegetables like Beet, Onion, Potato, Cucumber, Tomato, Eggplant (Brinjal), Broad bean, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Turnip, Pumpkin, Cucumber, Squash, Zucchini, Gourd, Carrot, Okra (ladies’ fingers) etc
- fruits like Apple, Mango, Pear, Guava, Peach, Grape, Papaya, Starfruit, Jujube, Black currant, Red currant, Jujube, Litchi, Passion fruit, Avocado, Apricot, Sweet Cherry, Sour Cherry, Melon, Watermelon, Kiwi fruit, etc
- Peppers like Chilli pepper, Red pepper, Bell pepper, Green pepper
- all berries like Blackberry, Raspberry, Blueberry, Cranberry, Strawberry, Rowanberry, Elderberry, Boysenberry etc
- Cotton, Tamarind, Cow pea, Mustard, Sesame, Coconut, Coriander, Coffee, Cardamom, Lime, Lemon, Fennel, Buckwheat, Flax, all variety of beans, etc
Of these, some plant species like Melon, Watermelon, Squash, Pumpkin, Gourd, Zucchini, Kiwi fruit, Brazil nut, Passion Fruit, etc will be completely wiped out and become extinct without bees to pollinate them. Other plants like Apple, Mango, Avocado, Buckwheat, Apricot, Peach, Almond, Pear, Cherries, Plums, Cashew nuts, Berries, Turnip, Coriander, Cucumber, Cardamom, etc will be almost wiped out without bees pollinating them.
Why are honey bees dying in large numbers?
The first point to be noted here is that, the huge number of bees dying was reported in commercial bee colonies. If this is the case with protected bees under human guard, imagine the fate of wild bees! And imagine, how many other insects have been dying?
The rate of death of commercial bee colonies has been ever increasing. The tolerable rate of death to keep these colonies commercially viable is around 15% per year. But the actual rate of death has been increasing from 30% some 10 years ago, to around 40% last year! In the US, more than 40% commercial honey bees died last year!
The death of bees became so high, that in 2006, a new term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) was coined for this phenomenon. This happens when a lot of worker bees in the colony disappear or die, leaving the queen and nurse bees behind, eventually leading to the death of the entire colony. And the honey bee colonies are dying not only in US, but in continents across the globe.
Pesticides – The bee poison
The major reason for the death of bees is the mindless use of pesticides. Pesticides are poisonous to humans, who are so large in size compared to a tiny insect like bee. So, while for humans, it takes few years of consumption of pesticide laden food to become ill, the tiny bees die almost instantly due to pesticide poisoning.
The huge amount of pesticides sprayed on crops enter their body when they drink nectar from the flowers of such crops. And that nectar becomes the poison that kills them. And remember, the honey you drink may also be filled with these pesticides, in addition to the possibility of it already being adulterated with cheap sugar syrup.
According to one survey, nearly 2/3rd of bee colonies in US and Canada had pesticides in their bees. A group of pesticides called Neonicotinoid, that are extensively used on vast majority of fruits and vegetables world wide, impairs their ability to navigate.
In other words, bees that drink nectar from flowers of crops sprayed with Neonicotinoid do not come back to their hives and eventually die. As the name suggests, these pesticides are neuro active (impact brains) similar to nicotine in cigarettes. Neonicotinoids have been banned in the European Union, but not yet in the US! These pesticides are 5000 to 10,000 times more toxic than DDT to bees!
Apart from this,pesticides also weaken the guts of bees making them more susceptible to pathogens like Nosema that kill them, destroying entire colonies of bees. In reality, these pesticides should be totally banned from being used. They even enter human body through honey, and through the fruits and vegetables whose crops were sprayed with pesticides.
Global Warming – The bee killer
You may be wondering, how global warming can kill bees. The average temperature during a month is increasing every year due to global warming. So, trees and plants that should be flowering in spring, flower before spring! You might have observed seasons shifting due to global warming.
So, when bees hatch during the actual spring season, the flowers are already gone! There is not enough food available. So while the plants lose an opportunity to get pollinated, the bees don’t get enough food. Both, the plants and bees lose due to global warming induced early spring season.
The bees born during food shortage are weak, have little immunity and more prone to diseases. In other words, the baby bees are suffering malnutrition caused by lack of food due to global warming.
In fact, the greatest amount of honey bee colony collapse in the past few decades has been in North America and Europe. These are the regions where the pesticide use has been huge. These are also the regions where the average cold temperature due to its polar proximity is turning hotter and hotter every passing year.
It was observed that bees in warmer temperatures are being born with smaller body and lower body fat. This was due to increased metabolic rates caused by global warming. This in turn means these bees are less energetic, are weak, and have less chances of surviving. For insects, body size is a big deal. If they are big, it means they have good energy reserves, and helps lot in their long flights as well as staying strong.
Loss of Habitat – bees die homeless
Another reason is that, as the weather is becoming more and more warm, animals and insects and bird species that cannot tolerate warm weather are migrating closer to the pole. They are moving away from the equator where the weather is hot, towards poles where the weather is relatively cool. But bees do not do that. Probably because there simply aren’t enough flowering plants near the poles to feed them.
So on one hand, colony loss due to global warming is causing the south most boundary of bee habitat to move upwards. On the other hand, the north most boundary of bee habitat remains unchanged. So overall there is a net loss of habitat and shrinking of geographical boundaries. So bees are left with smaller and smaller geographical territory every passing year.
Junk food fed to bees – The bee obesity
Most of the commercial bee colonies do not find enough flowers to feed them. For a bee colony to thrive, it is equally important to have access to a large number of and preferably a wide variety of nectar bearing flowers, crops. In the wild, this is not a problem for bees.
But in commercial bee colonies, there is a scarcity of healthy diet for bees. So many commercial bee keepers, in an urge to keep the colonies alive somehow and to produce more honey, feed these bees with sugar syrup and corn syrup. The pollen in the nectar they drink gives them protein, lipids, vitamins and minerals. This gives them essential nutrients and hence increases their resistance and immunity power, similar to how eating fruits and vegetables boosts human health.
But, with no flowers to feed around, the commercial bee colonies end up feeding on junk food like sugar syrup and become weak, prone to diseases and die. Neither is the honey they produce of a healthy quality. It is junk in the name of honey that is sold to humans.
Why should the death of bee colonies worry us?
The very first reason that should worry us is, we are causing another co-species on this planet become extinct because of the human greed. Bees, like any other species on this planet, are our co-species and have all rights on the resource of this planet as we do.
But our mindless use of pesticides, and the rising temperature due to global warming is killing these bees. Shouldn’t that in itself be the right reason to worry? If not, here is another reason.
The death of bees will cause humans to starve to death
The death of bees means acute shortage of food for humans. Of the top 100 food crops that are used to feed humans, 75% are pollinated by bees. So 1/3 of every bite of food we eat is, thanks to pollination by bees. Imagine the amount of food scarcity that will be created if bees become extinct. The death of bees is a great threat to global agriculture. For instance, the almond orchards of California need around 1.6 million bee colonies to pollinate the Almond trees, and without bees we might as well forget these almonds.
In the US alone, in the year 2000, the total crop value of crops exclusively pollinated by bees was $15 billion! Worldwide, over $200 billion worth of crops are pollinated only by honey bees, and this is only commercial crop, not the crops grown in the wild. Commercial honey bee colonies are rented every year across the farms worldwide during the pollination season of commercial agricultural crops.
Of course crops like rice, wheat, corn etc do not need bees or other insects as they are self pollinated or wind pollinated. But, imagine not having a wide variety of nuts, fruits and vegetables. Over 10% of major agricultural crops would be completely lost without honey bees.
If bees die, then humans will end up eating more junk food. And there will be lot less variety in human food. And of course, food shortage as well. Then imagine all the related job loss, for instance in the huge California Almond industry which cannot survive without bees.
How to save the bees and other similar insects?
At a global level, we need to turn to organic farming, stop using pesticides and other chemicals that are killing millions of insects worldwide. This has to come via administrative orders to ensure compliance. All kind of pesticides, chemicals, synthetic stuff used in farming have to be banned. They kill a lot of helpful bacteria and insects as well.
Instead use natural pesticides like neem, buttermilk, cow urine, etc. Instead of artificial manure, have earth worms in farming lands, and use organic waste, dried old leaves etc as natural manure. Encourage farmers to shift to organic farming.
At a personal level, you can help bees and other insects by
- developing pollinator friendly gardens in your backyard. Grow a wide variety of flowering plants so that you have flowers throughout the year.
- having window planters with flowering plants would help bees and butterflies
- avoid growing hybrid flowers that look good but are not good in pollen and nectar production
- buy pesticide free organic fruits, vegetables and other stuff. This helps both insects and also your own health.
- allow caterpillars even if they eat some of your plants. They eventually become colorful butterflies and help pollination of the very same plants.
- have plenty of earthworms in your soil. They keep soil nutritious for plants, which is good for bees and other insects.
Remember, No bees = No food