Bees have been in the news a lot recently. Millions of bees escaped when their hives fell off a truck in Canada. Hundreds of almost 3,000-year-old mummified bees were discovered in a paleontological site on the coast in Portugal. And a striking snapshot of just one busy mason bee memorising landmarks to build a nest in Germany was highly commended in this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.
But beyond these remarkable stories – of which there are surely many more – bees are in fact one of the most vitally important living creatures on Planet Earth.
They are essential for the prosperity of people, plants, animals, agriculture and the wider environment included. As the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) stated in an article on the crucial importance of bees:
“Bees are part of the biodiversity on which we all depend for our survival.”
However, bees are increasingly under threat from human activities and climate change, and their populations (like many other insects) have been found to be declining – putting the health of humans and the environment at risk.
Why are bees so vitally important?
The pollination service they provide is essential for the reproduction of plants; functioning of ecosystems; conservation of biodiversity; prosperity of human livelihoods; production of food; and provision of food security and nutrition.
“By carrying pollen from one flower to another, bees and other pollinators enable not only the production of an abundance of fruits, nuts and seeds, but also more variety and better quality, contributing to food security and nutrition. Pollination has a positive impact on the environment in general, helping to maintain biodiversity and the vibrant ecosystems upon which agriculture and humanity depend.”
“Nearly 90% of the world’s wild flowering plant species depend, entirely, or at least in part, on animal pollination, along with more than 75% of the world’s food crops and 35% of global agricultural land.”
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In addition to the direct impacts of pollination, there are in fact many different ways in which bees bring benefit to the planet.
They support local livelihoods around the world by helping to provide income and resilience for small-scale beekeepers in rural and indigenous communities.
They contribute to tourism and the sharing of cultural traditions through “apitourism.”
And they have even been found to be possible “bioindicators” of environmental pollution.
However despite the myriad benefits they bestow on people and the environment, like many other pollinators, bees are now facing a range of threats related to human activity and climate change.
The threats they face
Some examples of the threats bees are thought be facing based on research include:
- Air pollution: found to affect the scent molecules produced by plants, impacting the ability of bees to recognise, locate and memorise where flowers are;
- Intensive agriculture: which can lead to degradation and/or loss of bee habitats;
- Excessive pesticide use: shown to affect bees’ navigational and breeding abilities;
- Mass breeding and large-scale transport of pollinators (e.g., honeybees): found to pose possible risks to the spread of pathogens and parasites.
- Climate change, extreme weather and changing weather patterns: these affect bees in a range of different ways.
For example, earlier this year, there were reports in the UK that bees were waking up earlier than usual from hibernation due to warmer spring temperatures, potentially posing risks to pollination of fruits like apples and pears.
Also, in August, the Italian farmers association, Coldiretti, reported that bees in Italy were found to be exhausted by the heat and could no longer fly and transport nectar and pollen.
One study earlier this year investigated the effects of air pollution on the gut microbiome of bees. They found “there was a significant change in the abundance of two beneficial bacteria that are vital to the health of the bee gut microbiome.”
Beekeepers in a town in Scotland believe they’ve lost between 200,000 and 300,000 honey bees recently due to poisoning.
An annual bee survey found that honeybee colonies in the US almost halved last year (the second highest death rate on record), but that, fortunately, pro-active efforts from beekeepers helped to keep the bee population “relatively stable.”
And in January, one study estimated that declines in fruit, vegetable, and nut production due to inadequate pollination could be causing an estimated 427,000 excess deaths every year as a result of reduced healthy food consumption and associated diseases.
This is just a snapshot of some of the threats bees are facing and the downstream effects this could be having on their livelihoods and wellbeing – as well as that of humans and the environment.
And there are in fact many initiatives going on around the world to protect bees and other pollinators.
For example, the UN has designated May 20 every year as “World Bee Day” to “raise awareness of the importance of pollinators, the threats they face and their contribution to sustainable development.”
But as the UN titled its article for World Bee Day 2023: “We all depend on the survival of bees” – so, as climate change accelerates, it becomes more important than ever that we all work to protect bees as well as other pollinators – because people and the planet depend on them.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Bee amongst yellow flowers. Featured Photo Credit: İbrahim Özdemir.