What Will Be Won’t Bee

Published In The Huffington Post

Someone nowhere probably didn’t say this, although everyone thinks it was Einstein: “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live”. A rogue, probably-inaccurate quote. So why bother using it? Because it’s likely to be a bit accurate too. In short: bees are dying. And we should be worried.

In the UK, there are now around 250 types of bee – 24 types of bumblebee, 225 types of solitary bee and just one type of honeybee. And whether the thing Einstein didn’t say is accurate or not, it’s an irrefutable fact that bees play an important part in human life as we know it. They pollinate our crops and flowers, forming an integral part of our ecosystem (someone nowhere also said that one in every three mouthfuls we eat contains food that has been pollinated by a bee or insect).

Despite apiary apathy, we owe a lot to the honeybee in particular. They pollinate our crops, and (the clue is in the name) give us honey, which is, quite simply, amazing. Research into bacterial resistance to antibiotics has meant that manuka honey – renowned for its antibacterial properties – is becoming more prevalent in medicine. Honeybees also make propolis (a resin-like substance that they use to safeguard their hives from disease) which can have remarkable antimicrobial properties for humans and is used in pharmaceutical remedies. And Royal Jelly, revered by grannies across the world, is believed to have anti-ageing properties due to its amino acid, vitamin and mineral content. We can learn from honeybees in so many ways. A hive is considered a super-organism: a social unit where each individual cannot survive on its own, making it a helpful paradigm for our society. There’s no honeybee without a hive. There may well be no us without a hive either.

But the number of honeybee colonies fell by 53% in the UK from 1985 to 2005, and wild honeybees are all but extinct in the British Isles. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a phenomenon whereby bee colonies suddenly disappear, has been reported worldwide. It’s a scientific way of saying ‘all the honeybees are dying mysteriously’. Whether this has an acronym attributed to it or not, it’s really, really shit.

Depending on who you’re speaking to, there are different reasons for this…a prevalence of the Varroa mite and other diseases, a decrease in the bees’ habitat, a rise in GM crops…it’s even been suggested that mobile phone radiation may play a part. What’s becoming increasingly evident is that neonicotinoids, a type of crop insecticide, are a distinct risk factor. Supporting countless peer-reviewed scientific reports that reached this conclusion, a press release from European Food Safety Authority on Jan 16th 2013 identified a risk to bees from neonicotinoids.

Insecticides kill insects? To most of us that seems obvious. But predictably, the manufactures of said chemicals, namely Bayer and Syngenta, won’t make this link. And if they do, they carry on regardless – their reason being that neonicotinoid-based insecticides are not the only reason for a dramatic decline in bee colonies. Using that logic is like insisting that it’s fine to kick a kitten if it’s already meowing. Aware of the inconvenient bad publicity, Bayer have set up a ‘pro bee’ Twitter account. Brilliant. Except bees can’t read. A quick look at the twitter account reveals a slippery, legally-aware title: “The Bayer Bee Care Center unifies Bayer’s efforts to understand, research and communicate on bee health, something we have been committed to for nearly 30 years”.  They omit any mention of actually promoting bee health. The Bayer-faced cheek.

Insecticides are used for a reason. And yes, banning them could reduce crops yield. But if the risk posed to bees through use of neonicotinoids is as bad as is thought – one of them has got to go. Ask a child to draw a picture of a flower and chances are they won’t draw a conglomerate chemical manufacturer sitting on top of it. As honeybees die out, our reliance on them becomes unsustainable and we have to rely more extensively on other pollinators for our crops. The ones that are dying too. You see what’s happening here?

Without nature, we have nothing. We are nothing. The birds and the bees are the facts of life. Take away the bees and it doesn’t work. We only have facts left. So tweet on behalf of the bees. Support conservation work for all pollinators. Campaign for further research on the use of neonicotinoids. Or, better still, if you’re as convinced of their destructive properties as a lot of people are: campaign for ban. Get a hive. Or if you can’t – adopt a hive. Grow some flowers. Because like the bees,it’s the little things that make a big difference.