The facts on bees
I know, nobody cares about bees. Even I scarcely care about bees, and I already made the moral choice to avoid honey because of the barbaric treatment of honey bees.
Let's be real, it's just not an interesting subject to talk about. So why should we be worried about all these doomsday headlines about bee extinction?
Because more than 1/3rd of the world's crops relies on bee pollination.
Bees don't just give us honey. They also give us nuts, grains, fruits and vegetables.
For a decade farmers have been reporting that their bees are dying en masse. But our human population is only growing, with our demand for food rapidly increasing. We desperately need to save the bees to feed the world.
Bees are dying from 4 causes I can identify:
- Monoculture (e.g. corn/soybeans)
- Chemical pesticides
- A lack of natural plant cover (herbicides)
- Natural occurring viruses
A minimum of 40% of the world's surface is used to house livestock and grow their food (corn/soybeans). This means a majority of the world's viable farmland is either cleared for grazing animals or consume by mono-crops of grains and beans to feed livestock we later slaughter for food.
At the time of bloom of these mono-crops, there is plentiful food for bees to thrive for days up to months depending on the crop. However once the crop has finished bloom, the land effectively becomes a barren wasteland and bees can no longer survive in that area.
Effectively, our farming practices are causing flowerless landscapes where bees are unable to live.
There's no longer small patches of a variety of plants for bees to happily buzz between. Pollination is now an industrial institution that requires trucking bees between states across the seasons, as crops now stretch for hectares and are too big for bees to cross naturally. This constant shipping of bees across the country is terrible for their health, and beekeepers have been consistently reporting annual 30% declines in the population of their bees for the last several years.
The horrifying part is how much of these mono-crops are unnecessary and wasteful. Growing all this food just to feed to livestock that eat more than humans, then slaughter the livestock and eat them, is a bizarre and irrational way to produce food. If the world was to move away from meat and dairy and increase farming of a variety of plant foods, we could see a distinct change in the fate of the bees.
Pesticides are designed to kill any insects that feed on the crop. This includes bees.
When bees consume pollen or nectar with a plant that is either sprayed with pesticides (high dose) or only has pesticides on the seeds (low dose), they are either immediately poisoned to death or become intoxicated and can't find their way home. Either option ultimately results in the death of the bee.
Pre-WW2 farmers used to plant clover and other plants over their crops as protection. This was a natural pesticide and great bee food. But more recently however as our demand on food keeps increasing, we've shunned natural farming methods and now use dangerous, human made pesticides in our large-scale industrial farming.
Pesticides come in a different scale of toxicity. Some kill bees immediately, some kill bees slowly, some just cause them to pollinate and reproduce less which ultimately results in a decline in their population. Even organic farmers use some kind of insecticide/pesticide. But they think they've pinned down the worst pesticide as being something called neonicotinoid and now there are calls to ban it completely.
As consumers, it's hard to know who is using what pesticides. Our only real option is to buy foods labelled organic. Organic farms are not necessarily chemical free, but they are free of synthetic chemicals or GMOs. Health-wise there may be pesticide residue, but it is in much smaller quantities and at lower toxicity than other food products. So it's better for both the bees and us.
Lack of plant cover
They took all the trees, and put em in a tree museum
And they charged the people a dollar and a half to see them
No, no, no
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you got 'til it's gone
They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot
It's important we don't find ourselves living in urban wastelands. Melbourne has done a pretty good job of incorporating greenery into our inner city environment, but I think even we can do better. Pot plants, vegetable gardens, community parks and green traffic islands are all ways to boost bee-friendly plants in your home or community. This is something you can do by yourself on your own property or advocate to your local council about. It's just important that the plants are native to your area, so they attract native bees and are the right kind of carb or protein for them! (Different pollens have different nutritional value.)
If you live in Australia examples of bee-friendly plants are:
- Gum blossom
- Tea tree
Our rapid land clearing (again, mainly driven by livestock rearing) means we're removing natural plant cover that fosters bee communities, and we're replacing our Earth's surface with a) grazing fields, and b) paved residential communities. Bees can't flourish in an urban environment unless we pay attention to our local plant life and ensure there are trees and flowers on every block. This is something we can all help with!
Naturally occurring viruses
Yeah, there are natural causes of bee death. Just like there are natural causes of human death. The difference is humans have modern medicine and we're actively working to extend our lifespans. Bees aren't so lucky, while they have their own natural antibiotic (propolis) they simply don't have the technology to overcome all of the challenges to their population listed above. And as we know from humans, the poorer our nutrition the easier it is to contract illnesses making the issue even more concerning.
To put it in the simplest terms: If a bee was already feeling unwell then had to travel great distances to consume pesticide contaminated food that made them intoxicated and made it harder to navigate, they're probably not going to make it home as easily as if they started the journey in good health.
The compounding issue of natural diseases and our attack on their environment makes the outcome of a bee contracting a tick or a virus much more deadly than if it had contracted that disease in a healthy hive with ample food available.
- Boycott meat and dairy, i.e. the monocultured flowerless deserts grown to feed livestock
- Plant bee friendly herbs and flowers in your front yard to help native bee colonies where you live
- Buy organic!!! Only resort to non-organic groceries if absolutely vital
Through a few simple consumer changes in our grocery shop we can help fight the big industry industrialisation of our food production, limit the exploitation of our bees (and all animals), and protect ourselves to keep feeding the world over the coming decades.