Why are bees dying?
In this blog, we'll explore the possible reasons why bees are dying and for the continuing decline in bee numbers, both in Britain and around the world. Nobody is certain if there is one underlying cause and it may be that there are different causes in different places. However, it seems most likely to us to be a number of contributing factors that have become deadly to our bee population when combined.
What isn't in doubt is that bees are dying. Just a few days before this blog was published The Guardian newspaper reported that a quarter of all known bee species have not been seen since 1990, and that it “showed a clear global trend likely to indicate global declines in bees and other pollinators.” The warning at the end of the article that “waiting for further data to more precisely confirm the type of bee and other pollinator declines could leave it too late to save them.” is the frightening truth.
So why are bees dying? This blog explores six key reasons which contribute to the decline in global bee numbers:
- Habitat loss
- Climate change
- GM (Genetically Modified) crops
- Invasive species
Habitat loss though commercial development
The fact is that we are replacing the natural habitat of bees with houses, business parks, shopping complexes and farms. All commercial developments on wild areas will have a negative effect on the local bee population but it's something we can't avoid completely. Here in the UK we have a housing shortage and globally we have a rising human population. While buildings, farmland, industry and green lawns are good for us, they are not good for bees.
It's a sad reality that bees are losing the natural habitats (natural meadows and countryside) they directly helped to create. These natural habitats are essential for bees to find a balanced diet of food and have safe nesting areas. Bees are usually relying on protected wildlife areas to live in now, which is why we don't see them buzzing around all summer like we may have done in the past. It's not surprising that bees don't want to live in a man-made concrete jungle! It also won't be a surprise to see that our native wild bee populations fall further if we continue to build on our countryside and common land.
Habitat loss is a serious threat for our buzzy little friends and we can't afford to ignore it. It will be hard to stop all commercial developments, but projecting our countryside and green belts from urbanisation is important for bees.
Planting wildflowers and other plants which are native to a bees natural environment, even if in an urban area, can also help provide bees with desperately needed food and shelter.
Climate change is something we've known about for a long time. It doesn't really matter how much (or how little) you believe is the result of human actions, it's a fact that relatively rapid changes in climate around the world are having an affect on wildlife.
Changes in weather patterns can alter our typical seasonal temperatures, which in turn can affect plants and flowers that will contribute to the disruption of a bees natural yearly cycle of nesting and pollinating.
Unlike birds, bees are not known to migrate, if an areas plant biodiversity is significantly altered by climate change then it would likely have devastating effects on the bee population in that area. Many beekeepers believe that climate change is directly linked to bee colony losses around the world.
Only time will tell if government policy and our actions will do anything to reverse the situation we find ourselves in. We can only hope that as one of the most important creatures on the planet, our bee populations will be part of any considerations going forward.
Pesticides have an extremely negative effect on our bee populations. Pesticides can impair a bees' ability to navigate, cause infertility and damage their immune system making it harder to fight off diseases.
The good news is that many of these pesticides have now been banned around the world and bee-friendly alternatives are being researched and produced all the time.
Neonicotinoid insecticides are particularly harmful to bees and have been directly linked to a decline in our bee population. Thankfully these awful insecticides were banned in Europe entirely in 2018, but sadly they continue to be used in America and other countries around the world, so there is still a lot of work to do!
Pesticides are not only a problem in commercial farming but can also be damaging to bees in our own gardens! Spraying our garden plants and flowers with commercially available products from our local garden centre or supermarkets, which often contain chemicals that are far from bee-friendly, is something we can all try to avoid and is a small way we can all help our local bee populations.
For example, the 'weed killer' Glyphosate is a carcinogenic chemical that is still commonly used in some countries. In the USA, it's found in a very common garden product called 'Round-Up' and it is very toxic to bees. This is an area where we can all help a little by keeping our gardens free from pesticides and of course growing patches of bee-friendly flowers.
Genetically Modified crops
There is also a question mark around the growth in GM (genetically modified) crops and the impact these have on bees. There are theories that genetically modified pollens could be seriously detrimental to bees, to the point that they could actually cause entire bee colonies to collapse.
Currently there isn't enough evidence to say for sure whether GM Crops are damaging to bee populations because most research on these crops is related to the safety for us humans to eat, rather than the safety for bees! We don't know how modified crops could be effecting the bees but it could be a part of the bigger picture.
Like all living creatures, bees are susceptible to diseases. If they are weaker because of pesticides, climate change and habitat loss, then it seems obvious that they will be more likely to suffer from illness and death.
The most common way for disease to spread to bee colonies is through mites. The Varroa Mite is a big problem for bees, especially in the US and Asia. It transmits disease and drains energy from the bees they infect making them even weaker. Bees are also prone to fungal infections of which beekeepers play a vital part in protecting their bees from also being exposed to.
While diseases can explain some heart-breaking loss of bees, alone it cannot explain the devastating fall in overall bee numbers. As we suggested in our introduction it's likely to be a combination of factors that, while damaging on their own, only become truly a disaster when combined. Unfortunately that also means there is no single, simple answer.
There are also instances where an invasive insect species has taken over a bees’ habitat. It can create an imbalance of the ecosystem so disruptive it causes the bees to die in the process. Beekeepers are also playing an important role in protecting bees from invasive insects.
While you may feel that affecting government policy around the world is out of your reach, there are things we can all do to help save our bees.
The first step must be to learn and inform others about the struggles that bees face. We can make good decisions when shopping and buy locally produced organic (grown without the use of pesticides) produce if possible. Of course we aren't oblivious to the fact that there is often a massive price difference with organic products and for many people that is the biggest hurdle. It's important not to be disheartened though, just switching a single fruit or vegetable purchase to an organic product can make a difference, especially if it's a product that relies heavily on bees for pollination like kiwi fruit, blueberries, turnip, melon and many of the squash family of vegetable.
We can also make our gardens a sanctuary for our local bees by letting our lawns grow longer, our flowers grow a little wilder and refrain from using pesticides and weed killers. There are organic and natural pesticide alternatives which can easily be researched online. Ideally we want our gardens to provide shelter and be a friendly, safe haven for bees. If you can't do that for your whole garden then you can of course create a small 'bee garden' area anywhere, using our bee saving wildflower seeds sent free of charge with all our honey purchases or on their own with just a small postage charge.