The world as we know it is dependent on bees. It’s not just that our planet would become a pointless waste of space without honey, but at least a third of our food directly relies on bees for pollination.
Though grain crops are primarily pollinated by the wind, the majority of fruits, nuts and vegetables are pollinated by bees, and according to Greenpeace, 70 out of the top 100 human food crops – which supply about 90 per cent of the world’s nutrition – are pollinated by bees.
It’s almost impossible to measure or quantify the momentous importance to the world of these fuzzy, winged insects, but that hasn’t stopped humans from ascribing a monetary value to bees’ services to agriculture.
Bees and other pollinating insects, such as wasps, have been calculated to have a global economic worth of around £120bn ($150bn).
Of this, honey bees are said to be responsible for $30bn a year in crops.
In the UK, pollinating insects are worth around £690m to the economy every year, according to a study by the University of Reading.
But the bad news is that bees are not buzzing with excitement about finally getting the economic recognition they deserve; they are dying.
Massive declines in numbers are under way, largely due to human activity.
In January this year, a global study found that since 1990, a quarter of all bee species known to science – totalling around 20,000 – have not been seen, despite improvements and expansions in monitoring efforts.
Among managed honey bees in colonies specifically reared for pollination, there are also enormous declines. In the US, annual winter die-offs, which used to be around 15 per cent, now commonly reach 30-50 per cent, and in some cases up to 90 per cent.
In the UK, a third of our wild bee populations are in decline.
While humans could theoretically survive in whatever kind of wasteland a beeless world would resemble, our diets would be severely restricted. As well as a chronic lack of delicious honey, fruit would largely disappear from our trees, and supermarkets would have roughly half the amount of vegetable species they currently stock.
Carrots, apples, melons, onions, lemons, and brazil nuts would all become fabled goods from a luxurious bygone era.
The Woodland Trust said: “Bees are in decline on a global scale as they face many threats, from habitat loss to the use of toxic pesticides.”
But despite repeated warnings of this nature, humans are not taking widespread urgent action.
This year, the UK government said it will allow the usage of neonicotinoid pesticides, the use of which have links to collapses of pollinator populations, and as a result is banned in the European Union.
Key areas of habitat loss in the UK include wildflower meadows, which have declined by 97 per cent across the country since the 1930s, and also native forest and woodlands. The UK and Ireland have the lowest level of tree cover in Europe, and just seven per cent of the UK’s forests are in good ecological shape.
Sally Bavin, Woodland Trust conservation adviser, told The Independent: “From a woods and trees conservation angle, the succession of early blossom from a diverse range of native trees and shrub species such as blackthorn, wild cherry and hawthorn provide nectar for bees early in the season. Some bee species rely on old, decaying trees for nesting habitat – a habitat which has declined severely.
“Dead wood and veteran trees are features lacking in many of our woodlands with a negative impact on woodland ecological condition, including bee nesting habitat.”
She added: “In your garden you can provide a bee hotel which mimics the habitat naturally provided by beetle exit holes in decaying wood.”
Tanya St Pierre from Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s Get Cumbria Buzzing project told The Independent: “On World Bee Day, it’s really worrying to know that one-third of our UK wild bee populations are in decline.
“Recent research suggests even some common species are now in trouble. Until recently, both the red-tailed bumblebee and the early bumblebee were frequent visitors to our gardens; however, since 2011 these species have shown a marked decrease in number, according to studies by the University of Kent.
“Much of this is due to the loss of natural habitat, but also to the increased use of pesticides and herbicides.”
But she added: “The good news is that we are not powerless to help reverse the situation. We can all do our bit. Bees need food, shelter and somewhere to raise their young. The Wildlife Trusts suggest growing lots of bee-friendly plants such as bird’s-foot trefoil, vipers bugloss and having ‘wilder’ areas in our gardens and allotments that are undisturbed.”
In order to encourage more bees into gardens and make gardens better places for bees to be, Cumbria Wildlife Trust offered the following tips:
Go native: opt for native trees, shrubs, wildflowers and grasses where possible. These are the best plants you can grow to support bees and wild pollinators;
Mow less: mowing your lawn just once a month rather than once a week can give insects and wildflowers a chance to thrive. Better still, simply leave some areas unmown to provide a sheltered oasis for all kinds of wildlife;
Be natural: pesticides are harmful to all pollinators – you can help to reduce the amount of chemicals that enter the food chain by gardening in a more natural way. Organic gardening is much more beneficial for wildlife and us;
Encourage wildness: tall or tussocky grassy areas, bramble patches, nettle beds, wildflower areas, log piles, and damp wet ditches are all fantastic habitats for a wide range of pollinators to nest, breed and overwinter safely. Not only will this help to ensure the survival of the next generation of bees, but it’s much less work for you too;
Weeds are wonderful: change the way you think about weeds, these are so beneficial for wildlife. Dandelions are an important food for hungry queen bumblebees raising their young.