Bees have been around far longer than humans but they are now declining at an alarming rate around the world. In the USA approximately one-third of honey bee hives have been lost in the last two years, one million in 2008 alone. The losses are blamed on the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Although the Government claims that CCD has not yet reached Britain it is estimated that one in three (33%) of the UK’s 240,000 hives were lost in the winter and spring of 2008. This compares with losses of only 6% a year as recently as 2003. If this trend continues some experts now think that honeybees might be extinct in the UK within eight years. This would not only be catastrophic for the bees but disastrous for humans and the environment as a whole. Bees perform a vital function in pollinating flowers, fruit and vegetables: 35% of our diet is directly dependent on them, either because they pollinate foods like apples, pears and strawberries or the crops which farm animals eat. Alfalfa, one of the main food sources for cattle, is 90% reliant on bee pollination. Bees also perform a vital role in pollinating wild and garden flowers. No bees, no plants, it’s as simple as that. The value of bees to the UK economy is around £1 billion a year and it is estimated that it would require 30 million human workers to do the same job of pollination that bees do naturally ( and unpaid!) in the country every year.
No one is agreed on what is causing the drastic decline in bee populations around the world. Some blame pests, such as the varroa mite, which can spread diseases which wipe out whole colonies. Others indicate climate change, loss of habitat due to urban sprawl and new farming methods and the breeding of productive and docile types of honey bee which are less resistant to disease. The answer seems to lie in a combination of factors acting together. Attention has recently turned to the effects of pesticides, particularly the so-called neonicotinoids which bees pick up when they pollinate sprayed crops. In high concentrations some people believe that they lead bees to neglect their eggs and larvae and affect their vital navigational abilities. Both Germany and France have severely limited the use of neonicotinoids and the Co-op has recently banned the use of these pesticides on its own brand produce.
In April 2009 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) announced a £10 million project to investigate the decline of bees and other pollinators. Other organisations are also carrying out research into the problem. However, there is a lot that ordinary people can do to help the bees, whether by starting your own hives or planting flowers and plants which will encourage bees to use your garden.