Bee the change – part one

Honey, you've been saving the wrong bees! In the first of two articles, Sophie Ricardo, second year BSc Biology student, shines a spotlight on how the ‘Save the Bees’ campaign led to detrimental 'bee-washing'.

For years, the honey bee has been touted as the face of the “Save the Bees” campaign and a benevolent public responded. It was a case of “right message, wrong messenger” and new research reveals how this has contributed to catastrophe for the natural world.

Of the approximately 20,000 known species of bees in the world, only 11 are honey bees. Although we do owe a lot to these tiny helpers for products such as beeswax, honey and bee venom – which has shown promise in the treatment of antibiotic-resistant ‘superbug’ MRSA – they don’t need the conservation efforts that their wild brethren do. In fact, there was an 85% global increase of honey bee colonies between 1970–2017.

So, what’s the problem with honey bees?

Honey bees aren’t the villains here – they're only carrying out the work they have done for millions of years. The issue is their management.

Wild pollinators such as butterflies, moths, wild bees, vertebrates and flies are vital for food security and their ecosystems, with 75% of world crop production attributed to them. Managed honey bees only account for around 9%, and monopolise much-needed food and nectar sources.

Too much buzz

The explosion of beekeeping hobbyists has led to calls for better controls. Numbers of managed hives in the Greater London Area have doubled within a decade, yet worker bees were found to be three times less likely to survive when cultivated in urban environments.

For those keeping two or three hives, it’s advised that you have a garden that’s at least the size of a tennis court, or access to open countryside – and that gives you an idea of how ideal spaces are for bees kept in most city centres! Beekeeping also doesn’t require a licence and registration is voluntary.

Why does it matter?

Pollinator diversity is vital to our nutritional health. Currently, as much as 5% of global fruit, vegetable, and nut production is lost due to inadequate pollination, leading to an estimated 427,000 additional deaths associated with poor nutrition and associated disease annually.

Higher and middle-income countries are most affected, with lower-income countries suffering the most from reduced income as a result of lost food production. Without pollinators, farmers would have to hand-pollinate crops at an estimated cost of £1.8 billion a year in the UK alone.

Wider repercussions

Livestock also depends on pollinators for seed mixes and crops such as alfalfa hay, legumes and clover – and without wild pollinators, we’d struggle to feed animals that produce milk, dairy and eggs, as well as our beloved pets.

Medicines such as Aspirin (derived from Willow and Aspen trees) rely on bumble bees and Andrena mining bees, and The Kew Gardens State of the World’s Plants and Fungi Report suggests cures we didn’t even know were out there could be lost before they are ever discovered.

What can we do?

We could all learn from the Netherlands, where Amsterdam (home of Keukenhof, the world-famous tulip garden) has seen a 45% increase in its diversity of wild bee and honey bee species since 2000. How? By making use of public highways to plant wildflowers, ensuring the implementation of bee friendly "insectenhotels" and banning the use of pesticides on public land.

Bee wild

In the UK, there are approximately 270 species of bees and only one honey bee – the Western Honey bee. The other 90% of them are solitary bees, which live alone with no hierarchical structure. Solitary bees don’t swarm, are non-aggressive and are extremely generous pollinators. For example, one Red Mason bee can provide the ecosystem services of 120 worker bees by pollinating fruit trees.

Bee a gardener

You may recall “No Mow May” – an annual campaign from conservation charity Plantlife –  which saw gardeners record the growth of approximately 250 different wild plants, including dandelions, oxeye daisies and rare species such as bee orchids, wild strawberry, and wild and meadow saxifrage.

This was fantastic news for bees, as it unlocked much-needed nectar sources. Eight dandelions produce enough nectar sugar to meet an adult bumblebee's minimum daily energy costs, and 80% of lawns could support 400 bees a day, extending reserves into late summer!

Bee the change

There are many things we can do as consumers, gardeners and nature enthusiasts to help pollinators. After all, by helping them we help ourselves, conserving the planet for future generations. So, if we want to ensure wild bees and other pollinators aren’t lost forever, we must put in the hard work.

Disclaimer: The Bath Spa blog is a platform for individual voices and views from the University's community. Any views or opinions represented in individual posts are personal, belonging solely to the author of that post, and do not represent the views of other Bath Spa staff, or Bath Spa University as an institution.



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