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  • Mridul Mittal

Is this the Beginning of the End?

Updated: May 22, 2019

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

Albert Einstein

If we didn’t pay too attention to this quote of Einstein earlier, then it’s time now that we did.

Yes indeed.

Bees are disappearing from the face of the earth and what Einstein predicted for us might just come to pass.

Let me start with some figures from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) whose recent report showed that about 28% of bee colonies in the US have been lost in 2015 – 2016 winter! A survey that was undertaken in the US revealed that over half of the beekeepers suffered huge losses during the winter. What’s even more alarming is the fact that from April 2015 to March 2016 beekeepers in the US lost 44% of their colonies, which is the highest recorded annual loss ever!

What is even more alarming for bee scientists is the fact that these losses are happening due to a combination of environmental issues right in the summer when the bees are supposed to be doing really well!

So what’s really happening with these bees?

The Importance of being a bee

Let us address the first fundamental question. Why are environmentalists so concerned about bees? What do we stand to lose if they go extinct?

Not many know that bees are responsible for one out of every three bites of food that we eat!

How so?

That’s because crops that are grown for their fruits such as squash, cucumber, tomato, eggplant, nuts, seeds, fibre (cotton), hay (used to feed livestock) requires pollination.

What is pollination?

Pollination is the transfer of pollen from the male parts of a flower to the female parts of the same species. Pollinating insects such as bees play a critical role in the plant communities and they help ensure the production of seeds in flowering plants. Bees are the main insect pollinators in the plant world. European honey bees are known to pollinate a wide variety of plant species in the environment.

What makes bees great pollinators makes a fascinating story. On a philosophical level, one can even argue that God created this insect just to pollinate! The bees are excellent pollinators because they spend all their life to collect pollen. Pollen is a source of protein for the bees as they use it to feed their offspring. The bees have hairs that are fashioned to attract pollen grains through electrostatic forces. They have stiff hair on their legs that allows them to groom the pollen and carry it back to their nest. Individual bees focus more on pollinating only one kind of flower while other types of bees specialise in cross-pollination in order to create viable seeds. It is this action that has indirectly helped us human beings with a variety of food and fruits.

If the bees disappear tomorrow, how would this world look like?

Simple. We will not have fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Nearly one-third of the world’s crops are dependent on the honeybees to pollinate them. If the bees disappear these crops too would disappear.

To raise awareness about how serious this issue is, University Heights Whole Foods Market store in the US temporarily removed all produce and products that won’t be available to the public if the bees cease to exist tomorrow. Believe it or not, they had to pull over 237 products out of 453, which makes up around 52% of a store’s products!

I will make it simpler for you and list the products that would actually disappear if there were no bees.

ApplesOnionsAvocadosCarrotsMangosLemonsLimesHoneydewCantaloupeZucchiniSummer squashEggplantCucumbersCeleryGreen onionsCauliflowerLeeksBok choyKaleBroccoliBroccoli rabeMustard greens

And you bid adieu to the list of the products above if we can’t save the bees from extinction.

What’s with the bees?

Now that we have understood the gravity of the situation, let us also understand what’s casing the disappearance of the bees.

A recent study conducted by Harvard University was published in 2014 and has conclusively proved that the massive amount of pesticides that are sprayed on the crops in North America are responsible for the disappearance of the bees. The study conducted by Harvard University conclusively proved that Neonicotinoid – a widely used insecticide is directly responsible for the rise in bees mortality rate as they trigger phenomena called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Colony Collapse Disorder

This is a phenomenon where the majority of bees in a colony just disappears leaving the queen bee and few other immature bees to fend for themselves! Though the collapse of a bee colony is not an infrequent occurrence the rate at which this syndrome unfolded in 2006 all around the world in USA and Europe, scientists were forced to name this phenomenon as Colony Collapse Disorder.

In 2006, the large scale disappearance of Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) in North America, Belgium, France, Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and Germany made the world look at a problem that they had been staring right at their face for a very long time.

Here is some statistics to chew on –

As per the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations, the global crops that are pollinated by honey bees are close to $200 billion in 2005 and the shortage of bees led the farmers to rent them for pollination that has increased the cost to farmers by about 20%. According to a recent study around 10 million beehives have been lost all over the world thanks to Colony Collapse Disorder.

As per the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) there were 274,000 hives in the UK, 1,090, 630 in Italy and 1,283,810 in France. According to the British Beekeepers Association, the bee population dropped in the UK by around 30% between 2007 and 2008.

In Scotland, many beekeepers lost 80% of their hives though they do not blame it on CCD but a rather virulent form of bacterial infection. In Germany however, 40% of the colonies died due to suspected CCD.

In China, the situation is direr. Over 75% of crops in China require pollination. In China, intensive farming has brought vast tracts of land under cultivation, which also resulted in a massive amount of insecticides and pesticides being used on the crops. This, in turn, has resulted in eradication of bees!

In South West China where an abundance of apple and pear farms exists and a large of variety of insecticides is used to keep the yield in these farms consistent. The combination of insecticide and the lack of natural habitat have resulted in the extermination of bees in these areas! Now Chinese farmers are forced to hand-pollinate their trees due to the lack of bees. A process that was once perpetuated by the bees naturally has become a mechanical burden for today’s farmers. Farmers carry pots of pollen and paintbrushes and painstakingly pollinate each individual flower while children are asked to climb up the tree to pollinate higher blossoms!

The very fact that the Chinese have gone to such lengths to pollinate crops suggest the gravity of the situation.

In India, a new theory for the disappearance of bees has been found. Mobile phones and towers are apparently the culprits here. In Kerala, a huge number of instances of CCD was discovered and it was discovered to be linked to mobile towers and radio signals. An experiment was conducted to verify the same by placing a mobile phone near a colony of bees and they soon noticed that the worker bees lost their way to the hive and within ten days the colony collapsed leaving just the queen bee and the young ones. Though pesticides and insecticides have played a major role in the decrease of the bee population, this new theory is worth investigating as well. Many German researchers too who studied this possibility have reported the behavioural changes in bees due to the electromagnetic waves that emanate out of mobiles and is believed to hamper the navigational skills of the worker bees.

Implications

Bees are disappearing fast and while Scientists debate and skirt around the causes of CCD we need to do what we can to preserve these insects and their ecosystem before it becomes too late. Abrupt climate changes too have played its role in the disappearance of bees. Ecosystems where flowering plants thrive need monsoon rains and when they fail, these plants whither away. Most often it is near these flower plants that honey bees build their hives and when seasonal rains fail to come, the entire cycle of bees’ natural process gets disrupted.

This disruption is visibly plain in Nilgiris, India’s ecological biosphere reserve. Severe droughts have reduced the number of flowering plants and with consequence the colonies of bees.

Local tribesmen Madhan Bomman, of the Kattunaicken tribe in Nilgiris, are campaigning vociferously against the use of insecticides and pesticides. He said, “My community is completely dependent on honey bees. Teenage boys in our community will be trained in climbing trees and fetching honey from as young as 15 years. Fetching honey has been our occupation for several decades. Honey is also an important food in our menu for our family festivals.”

What he said next is equally alarming and reveals the extant of the problem,

“During my teens, our men would stick with one huge tree and draw honey for an entire week,” he says.. “Honey from one tree would be enough for 50 families.

“Now our sons have to climb 10 trees to get a few litres of honey. We find only very few tall trees in the forests, and several varieties of flowers have disappeared.”

A combination of factors and environmental issues seemed to be contributing to the disappearance of bees – excessive use of insecticides, pesticides, climate change, mobile towers, electromagnet waves…

Is there a solution?

The way forward

There are seven simple solutions that can be implemented to save the bees from extinction –

Do not cut down wild flowers. Water them, nurture them and let them be. Some bee species are known to come out early in the season to look for nectar.Plant organic plant seeds, bulbs and plants from nurseries and encourage the bees to pollinateOpt for old-fashioned varieties of flowering plants rather than highly cultivated ones. Cottage style flowers are vintage and are highly attractive to bees.Save a small patch of your garden for a meadow and if there are no wildflowers in the garden, plant them!Natural methods of pest control need to be used and pesticides and insecticides need to be avoided like plague. Neonicotinoid pesticides remain in the soil for a very long time and these chemicals poison whatever grows in the soil.Put up bird boxes and hollow canes to encourage bees to take up residence in the garden.Lastly spread the word… saving bees may not be high on the priority of most people but unless you want your food devoid of blueberries, apples, onions, lemons carrots… you would.

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