The birds and the bees - a fact of life?

Amy Leech - 18 June 2012

Bees flying into a bee hive box.The birds and the bees...that’s life, or so we say – as we try to explain our nature in a way that saves our blushes, and our children’s ears from hearing the facts of life too early. They’ll soon learn of course. But when will we?

The news is rife with the alarming decline of the honeybee. In the UK, half the honey bees kept in managed hives have gone, while wild honey bees are close to extinction. Meanwhile farmland birds are also suffering huge losses. A recent study found that their numbers have fallen by 50% in Europe over the last 30 years.

The importance of these facts cannot be denied. The birds and the bees shape life as we know it.

We are indebted to bees for one third of our food supply. They also pollinate inedible plants, maintaining vital ecosystems. Birds serve equally important purposes; pollinators themselves, they spread the seeds of plant and trees. They control insect and rodent numbers – and serve as an important food source to their predators.

And in what way do we repay them for their services?

Mounting evidence is showing that some pesticides we use on our crops – neonicotinoids – are proving harmful to bees; repeated doses of them have been shown to stop bees from being able learn and remember good nectar sources, and from being able to return home with their bounty. 

Pesticides don’t just damage bees. As their name suggests, they are intended to harm a whole host of insects. Population decline in insects is thought to be greater than among any other group of living things. Pesticides use, and the consequential decline in insect numbers is having a negative impact on bird populations – for whom insects are a primary food source.

So, we appear to be waging a war against the very life forms that sustain us.

But this has never been a case of us and them.

“This is not about food or wildlife – we can have both” said Richard Gregory, project manager of the Pan-European Bird Monitoring Scheme which came across the staggering decline in farmland bird populations.

He’s right, and I’d go further in saying we need both. The productivity of our crops is dependent on a healthy ecosystem.

"Human beings have fabricated the illusion that in the 21st century they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature” said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director, commenting on their report on the global decline of the honey bee.

The demise of the bees and farmland birds has shattered this illusion.

We have to accept that we are wrong, and save far more than our blushes in doing so.

Amy is Research Assistant at the Soil Association.

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Amy Leech
15 October 2012 17:04

Thanks very much Agnes. Good to hear.

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