Although bees are a vital part of our food chain their importance has often been overlooked. However, the recent acknowledgement by the USFWS (US Fish and Wildlife Service) – that seven bee species are now considered endangered – heralds a more conserving view towards bees and the protection of their habitats.
Earlier this month, seven types of Hawaiian yellow-faced bees were declared endangered – the first of their species to be added to the USFWS compiled endangered list. Honeybees pollinate plants and crops that are essential food sources, meaning that human survival is directly correlated with the successful existence of bee populations. As a result, a plummet in the number of bees will not bode well for us, or for the other species, that rely on crops, fruits and vegetables to exist.
The current decline in bees is due to a combination of influences. These include climate change, human factors such as the growth of urban areas and air pollution, the use of harmful pesticides as fertilisers and viruses which can impact entire bee populations.
Climate change is seen as a key factor behind the continued stresses placed on bees, with harsher winters and colder springs causing problems for their populations. In addition, habitat loss and wildfires have also impacted on bee numbers – considered to be a major contributor to the endangering of Hawaiian bees.
Harmful pesticides used by farmers can poison bees, subsequently leading to a decline in their species. Neonicotinoid insecticide has been found to have a harmful effect on bee populations and has been banned from use in the EU. However, the banning of a single pesticide will not force a revival in bees, with many additional complications – such as concentration and exposure time – existing between its use and its consequent effect on bees. This is further highlighted by the research conducted at the National Veterinary Research Institute, located in Poland, which identified 57 different types of pesticides contained inside bees.
Even at extremely low levels, the pesticides used in farming can weaken the defence and immune systems of bees. This can result in the development of CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder), which can kill entire hives of bees at any one time. The disorder reduces the productivity of worker bees within the hive, also prompting the queen bee to lay a reduced number of eggs. Neonicotinoids are cited as one of the biggest causes of CCD and, although banned in the EU, it is still one of the most common types of insecticide in the world.
Other detrimental factors to bee populations include added competition from non-native bees, and environmental changes occurring from increased human inhabitants. The severity of bee losses is highlighted by the US Department of Agriculture, with the collapse of over 30% of beehives in the US occurring over the last fifty years. Happily, this month’s ruling to protect the Hawaiian bees’ means that yellow-faced bees will be heavily conserved in the future. This comes into effect at the end of October, although this may prove to be too late for the seven species already marked as endangered.
Unless more work is done to protect at risk species, the future looks bleak for bees. If their numbers continue to be decimated, we could lose a third of the food that is dependent upon bees to pollinate. Further research into bee-friendly pesticide is required and, most importantly, a collaborative between all stakeholders is required to ensure the ultimate survival of the honeybee.
(Image courtesy of Uberprutser)