Here are some links to new stories on a UN report published today on the continuing decline of honeybees.
The Independent: ‘Decline fo honeybees now a global phenomenon’
The data from China and Japan which confirms that they are losing large numbers of honeybees is new but not surprisingly given they are using the same western honeybee.
I think it is more significant that the UN lumps honeybees together with other pollinators and suggests we can substitute them with wild bee pollinators. Yes, of course we need to increase habitats and forage for other bees, but don’t think managing bumble bees and solitary bees is going to be a panacea to a potential pollination crisis if the same stresses are present i.e. bee-toxic pesticides.
My views on the report are posted on The Guardian, or you can read them below.
It is significant that on the cover of today’s Unep report on global honeybee colony disorders is a photo of a honeybee with a varroa mite clearly visible on her thorax. This external parasite, which feeds on bees‘ circulatory fluid, spreads viral diseases and bacteria from hive to hive, and if left unchecked it will lead to the premature death of bee colonies – and is the most serious threat to the western honeybee in almost every country, say the report’s authors.
Yet in 2006 when US beekeepers began to report the disappearance of their bees – a mysterious phenomenon that wiped out more than a third of colonies at its height in 2007-08 and was named colony collapse disorder – no one was interested in this pinhead-sized parasite.
Varroa had already been in the USA for 20 years. A group of US scientists wanted to find a new killer. They identified a number of suspects, many of whom are highlighted in today’s report including virulent fungal infections; memory-damaging pesticides applied in the field or used by beekeepers to control mite levels in hives; and poor diet from low-protein monoculture crops. A combination of some, or all of these factors, was creating the conditions, they concluded, that suppressed the bees’ immune system.
Five years after honeybee deaths made headlines worldwide and continue to be a problem in many parts of the world, scientists in the US and Europe who collaborated on this report accept that varroa-spread viruses and bacteria are helping to kill weak bees. But climate change and air pollution have been added to the honeybees’ ever-growing list of assailants.
Interestingly the report also refers to electric and magnetic fields from sources such as power lines that may be changing bee behaviour. This potential threat was dismissed by the scientific community when I was researching a book about the causes of the honeybees’ decline. The role of pesticides was also initially played down. Since then, France, Italy, Germany and Slovakia have temporarily suspended the use of some systemic pesticides because of their implication in bee deaths, but the report makes no mention of what impact this has had. It may be too early to tell or the results are inconclusive. It does however admit that pesticides “can weaken the honeybee’s immune system and hamper bees’ ability to fight infection”. But rather than calling for a ban pending further tests it timidly suggests that farmers and gardeners apply pesticides more carefully or switch to non-toxic methods.
Most significantly, the Unep report does not look at honeybees in isolation but as one of the insects and animals that contributes €153bn globally by pollinating crops. Taken together it concludes there is insufficient data to demonstrate a current worldwide pollinator crisis.
Yet it points to a potential crisis unless we reverse the loss of habitat and flowers that are threatening wild pollinators such as bumble bees and solitary bees and rightly calls for famers who plant wild flower margins and set-aside land to restore habitats and food for pollinators to be financially rewarded.
But the authors are misguided in their belief that one way to avert a crisis is by conserving populations of wild bees, and even managing them where possible, to compensate for the continual loses of managed honeybees. The wild bees that we expose to pesticide-sprayed fields, monoculture crops and management by humans could all suffer the same fate as our immune-suppressed honeybee. Bumble bees that managed to pollinate tomatoes, for example, suffer from diseases that have spread to wild bumble bees. Until we have tackled and then eliminated the underlying causes of honeybee deaths, substituting one failing pollinator for another will not be a panacea.