Pesticides, parasites, disease – the growing list of aggressors against the humble honeybee is causing the population to die out and, Emily Miller warns, the ramifi cations will be huge

The master of all the pollinators – the honeybee – is dying out on a global and frightening scale. In the UK alone, the last annual survey carried out by the British Beekeeping Association showed bee losses of 17% over this year’s winter. This is nearly double normal yearly losses.

Over the last two decades, it is estimated that nearly half of the UK’s bee hives have vanished. For the USA, the fi gures are even more worrying – the winter of 2009-10 saw a loss of 33.8% of US bees.

It is a similar picture in many other European countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland. Scientists believe there is a real risk that bees could disappear altogether. This emerging risk – labelled ‘colony collapse disorder’ – could leave the world with a potentially imminent ecological and fi nancial catastrophe.

In 2007, Britain’s then minster of environment and rural affairs, Lord Rooker, gave a stark warning in the House of Lords that if things went on as they were, “the honeybee population could be wiped out in 10 years”. Judging by recent fi gures, this grim forecast could come true sooner rather than later.

What does this mean for us? As bees become extinct, so too will the Earth’s fl ora, fauna and a large part of our diet. This is a worrying fact for a fi nancially challenged world trying to feed an ever-expanding population with highly stressed resources. In Europe alone, €14.2bn is generated from insect pollination every year.

Twelve per cent of the earth’s land is cultivated for crop growing, and 90 types of commercial crops (including cotton plantations, orchards and vegetable beds) owe their existence to bees. If the bees disappear, so will these crops. Vital forage, like Alfalfa, which feeds cattle and pigs, could also disappear. Meat, milkand cheese could become prohibitively expensive.

The pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries would be deeply affected. Etopside, a drug used to treat skin cancer, comes from a chemical found in the May apple. Beeswax has over 120 industrial uses in drugs, polishes, lubricants and skincare products. “Bees pollinate a third of the food we eat,” says Naomi Davies, environment adviser in the social goals division of the Co-operative Group, the UK’s largest farmer and a major retailer. “Research shows that the bee population in the UK halved between 1985 and 2005. Nobody knows for certain what is causing bees to die off in such large numbers, but many factors have been implicated, including pest and disease, pesticides, the importing of non-native bee species, wet summers and loss of wildfl owers.”

With so many commercial products at risk, the extinction of the honeybees could foretell the unravelling of the world economy. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation puts the annual value of pollination services worldwide at $200bn (€154bn). According to the World Economic Forum, over one billion people, or one in six globally, do not have access to adequate food and nutrition today. By 2050, the global population will grow to a projected 9.2 billion people, and demand for agricultural products is expected to double.

In 2007, the price on the global markets of soya beans rose by 87%, corn by 31% and wheat by 130%. The reliable production of staple foods already appears increasingly fragile and escalating prices on these foods across the globe have provoked riots in more than 30 countries. Severe shortages brought about by the decline of the bees could provide a catalyst for global civil unrest.

Mass pesticide

Pesticides, genetically modifi ed crops, invasive parasites, malnutrition, mites, disease, inter-breeding and climate change are all cited as possible causes of the decline in bee population. Many scientists agree it may be the combination of all of these factors that leaves the bees vulnerable and unable to survive.

“The problem,” Manchester Beekeeper’s Association microscopist John Charlton says, “is that bees have a very weak immune system. If they get three upsets, they won’t survive.” These upsets could be anything from the stress caused by pesticides to parasites, viruses or mites. The spread of pests and diseases has been compounded by the international trade in honeybees to bolster supplies.

Pesticides remain the biggest concern, as many of those used on bee-pollinated crops are toxic to honeybees. Systemic pesticides like Imidacloprid work their way up through the plant into the fl owers’ pollen and nectar and are consumed by bees at low, yet dangerous, levels. Studies in France and Italy have found that imidacloprid can disorientate bees, impair their memory and communication, and cause nervous system disorders.

“Pesticide usage is possibly a factor behind the collapse of bee colonies,” Co-operative Group senior technical manager Simon Press says.

“Certainly some pesticides are recognised as having an effect on how the bees can fi nd their way back to their hives and communicate with the other bees in the hive. There was a case in Germany last spring, and in France prior to that, where neonicotinoids and the use of them has caused the complete collapse of bee populations in certain areas.”

In January 2009, the Co-operative Group launched its campaign, Plan Bee. “It’s a ten-point plan to help reverse the decline,” Davies says. “It will research the effect of neonicotinoid pesticides on bees and take action by prohibiting these types of pesticides.” Since 2009, Co-operative Food has imposed a temporary prohibition on the use of four of the neonicotinoid pesticides on its own-brand fresh and frozen produce.

The shift in global agricultural practice more generally has played a role in the decline of the bees. The mixed farming landscapes of the past have been replaced by heavily industrialised monocultures, which represent a hostile pollination ground for bees.

Farmers who mass produce bee-pollinated crops have come up with ways to increase their harvest to meet burgeoning commercial demands. For example, in the USA 80% of the world’s almond production takes place in California. Almonds are the country’s most profi table export. And pollinating these orchards requires some 40 billion bees.

Half of all the honeybees in the USA have to be transported to California to facilitate this commercial success. As a result, pollination has become a global business worth £30bn (€36bn) and honeybees are treated more like machines than animals. Shipping them around the country in the back of trucks lowers their resistance to disease and pests and may account for their rapid disappearance.

In southern Sichuan in China, the mountains are covered in pear trees but there are no bees in the region to pollinate them, as pesticides killed them all 20 years back. Instead, humans must pollinate the trees by hand. Every April, thousands of people climb up the branches with bamboo sticks with chicken feathers attached to the end that have been dipped in pollen, manually collected from the trees beforehand. Laborious and slow, it is signfi cantly less effi cient than a colony of honeybees, which would be able to pollinate up to three million fl owers a day.

The cost of employing humans to hand-pollinate across the world, should the bee population die out, would be unfeasable and unsustainable. In the USA alone, to employ labourers to hand-pollinate 3.5 million acres of crops that are normally fertilised by honeybees would cost an estimated $90bn.

What can be done?

On 22 June 2010, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced the funding of nine projects, worth £10m, to explore the causes and consequences of threats to insect pollinators. The ultimate objective is to mould the development of mitigation strategies that will then ensure that the pollination of agricultural and horticultural crops is protected and biodiversity in natural ecosystems is maintained.

“The initiative will help some of our worldclass researchers to identify why bee numbers are declining,” says Lord Henley, a Conservative peer and Defra minister. “It is crucial that we better understand the complex relationships between biological and environmental factors that affect pollinators’ health and lifespan.”

This funding and research is hugely important, but what seems glaringly obvious is that the world’s biodiversity is at risk because of the unsustainable way agricultural land is managed

Research shows how pesticides play a key role in inhibiting the bee’s ability to pollinate and survive.

But, as one aggravating factor amid so many, pesticide companies maintain that they don’t shoulder all the blame and so pesticide use continues. Pesticides are just one component of intensive farming methods that have caused the loss of habitat and fl owers that scientists know are killing bees. The UK alone has lost over three million hectares of habitats rich in wildflowers since the Second World War, but wildlife schemes have only recreated 6,500 hectares.

A report on the implications of biodiversity loss, put together by PricewaterhouseCoopers in collaboration with the Global Risk Network in 2010, warned how dependent agricultural systems are on key ecosystem services, including pollination.

The report anticipates the world’s population will increase signifi cantly. “This will place huge pressure on scarce land resources and will severely test the ability of ecosystems to deliver the services on which agriculture relies,” the report said.

Bee happy

Some companies, like the Co-operative Group, are adopting a positive approach. Leading by example with their ban of certain pesticides, the group continues to fund research and support the fragile industry of bee-keeping.

“We are in our second year of a three-year trial to research a wildfl ower seed mix that will be planted alongside crops on our farms,” Davies says. “On top of this, we have invited beekeepers to keep hives on our land with over 600 in place to date. We have given away over 600,000 packets of wildfl ower seeds and are funding urban beekeeper projects in London, Manchester and Inverness.”

The bee dilemma is real and brings with it a worrying outlook of connected risks. Compounded by disease and pests, the real challenges lie in the failing environment and the destructive way landscapes are farmed. Restoring ecosystems and overhauling pesticide use are essential initiatives if we are to safeguard an industry that the world is so reliant on. It requires radical action and it needs to be taken soon before the honeybee vanishes for good. ¦

Emily Miller is a freelance contributor to StrategicRISK. For further reading on the topic, see A World Without Bees by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum