Alan Frischer, MD, MPH
Updated: Sep 25, 2021
Here I am, defending bees. I have been stung twice: once while swimming laps (guess what was on the edge of the pool when my hand reached out?), and once inside my mouth, while eating a chicken drumstick and distracted by a great conversation. However, we have all seen many fewer bees in the past several years. What has been happening?
They may be a nuisance and sting people, some of whom have life-threatening allergies, but bees are critical to our food supply and are sadly dying off in enormous numbers. Honeybees are responsible for about 80% of worldwide pollination. Grains are mostly pollinated by the wind, but fruits, nuts and vegetables are pollinated by bees. In fact, bees pollinate 70 of the top 100 human food crops, which supply about 90% of the world’s nutrition. On top of that, they pollinate foods like wild berries and nuts, eaten by birds and other mammals, and alfalfa, eaten by domesticated livestock.
Typically, a beehive or colony will shrink by 5-10% over the winter, and those lost bees would be replaced in the spring. In a bad year, a bee colony might lose 15-20% of its bees. That rate of loss has accelerated to 30-50%, and in some cases even more, over the past 10 years. In fact, for domestic crops that require bee pollination, the number of bee colonies has declined by a whopping 90% since 1962.
This enormous loss of bees is due to multiple and complicated causes, including decreasing crop diversity, the use of certain pesticides, drought, habitat destruction, air pollution, and climate change.
Some examples: Wild bee habitats shrink every year as grasslands and forests are converted into farms or housing. Biologists have found more than 150 different chemical residues in bee pollen. A number of chemical companies are involved in making these pesticides, including Bayer, Syngenta, BASF, Dow, DuPont and Monsanto. The official position of these companies is that the loss of bees is far too complex to reverse.
It is likely that we would survive a loss of the bees, but that many types of food would disappear. It may be time…or past time…to start thinking about the bigger picture. Here are some achievable goals that scientists feel could make a difference:
· Ban the most dangerous pesticides
· Work to preserve the bee pollinator wild habitats
· Promote ecological agriculture
· Help to provide bees with shelter, including safe havens in our own backyards. Wild bees and honeybees love diverse habitats, so planting a variety of native plants in our backyards or balconies helps to support them.
Unfortunately, these measures will raise the cost of the foods we buy. The impact of this increase in prices, of course, needs to be balanced by the impact of the loss of food variety and the increased food costs, should the bees disappear.
I find it interesting that the nation of Bhutan has led the world in adopting a 100% organic farming policy. There are numerous examples of individual farms and countries implementing policies that work towards protecting their crops and habitats.
Let’s all make the effort to think bigger than usual. This is our Earth, and it will not be the same if we don’t make serious efforts to protect it.