Why Are Bees in Danger?
Bee numbers are falling across the world. There isn’t one single cause to blame but there are three significant threats that stand out: pesticides, the varroa mite and habitat loss.
In non-organic farming, pesticides such as neonicotinoids are applied to crops to kill and control pests, but they also cause considerable harm to bees and other species, blocking neural pathways in their central nervous systems, causing disorientation, inability to feed and death. The problem with neonics is also that they are systemic pesticides. Once seeds have been coated in these pesticides, then every part of the plant’s tissues will take it up as it grows. A bee can still receive a toxic dose a long time after the plant has been treated. Neonics also spread and contaminate soil, air, nearby hedges and water nearby. That is one of the reasons that the EU has issued a temporary partial ban of neonics and why we are campaigning for a permanent ban: https://www.soilassociation.org/our-campaigns/ban-neonics/
Honey bees also face another huge threat from the varroa mite, which attaches itself to the honey bee and sucks its blood. When the bee returns to the hive, the varroa mite can spread and bring viruses and disease with them.
Varroa mites are unfortunately very successful. Once the varroa mite has entered a colony, it can kill the whole colony in 2-3 years. They have been found to be one of the main causes of colony collapse disorder in North America. Research has found that honey bees infected with varroa mites may be more susceptible to the toxic effects of the neonicotinoid, imidacloprid.
The varroa mite does not attack bumblebees or solitary bees, but all types of bees face a significant threat from our changing land use.
There is also a significant threat against bees from our changing land use. As cities grow and agriculture becomes more intensive, bees are losing the wild spaces, hedgerows and meadows where they can find flowers and food. An estimated 97% of wildflower meadows disappeared from England and Wales between the 1930s and 1980s; this has contributed to a profound impact on our wildlife, including bees. Hayhow, D.B. et al (2016) ‘State of Nature 2016’, The State of Nature Partnership, p 21 available online here.
We have unfortunately lost many flowers from the landscape to growing cities, new roads and intensive agriculture. This has left the bees scrambling to find enough food. Many bee species have declined and two bumblebee species have even become extinct in the UK since 1940.
At Soil Association we campaign for more sustainable farming to support our bees and other pollinators for current and future generations. It’s important that farming protects space for the insects and wildlife that are part of the landscape too.
Let’s keep the bees buzzing
Bees face many threats and it’s important that we act to protect them. Bees don’t just provide honey, they are essential for food production and natural systems. Without them we would struggle to produce important crops such as fruits, nuts, coffee and cotton.
Rachel Carson wrote about our relationship to bees in her hugely influential book Silent Spring:
“Man is more dependent on these wild pollinators than he usually realizes. Even the farmer himself seldom understands the value of wild bees and often participate in the very measures that that rob him of their services” (Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, p. 77, 1962)
50 years later, we cannot risk repeating a silent spring. So let’s halt the toxic use of neonics and keep the bees buzzing.