Friday, 18 February 2011

Disappearance of Billions of Bees Could Mean us Losing a Third of The Food We Eat

Just four years. That’s how long Albert Einstein reportedly said the human race would last in a world without bees. For the master of relativity, the equation was relatively simple: no more bees = no more people. And while there is debate over whether the great physicist made the claim, no one disputes that we would be in serious trouble were bees to disappear.
I had no idea then that these extraordinarily productive creatures, whose very name is a byword for busyness, whose hives are synonymous with ‘industry’, do far more than just make honey. In fact, they are responsible, via pollination, for one third of the food we eat.
Bees are vital to the success of about 90 crops worldwide. Most fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds are dependent on bees, as are crops used as cattle and pig feed. And if we can’t feed cows, we can say farewell to dairy produce. Nor is it only the food we eat that is inextricably linked to bees. The cotton plant that provides so much of what we wear also relies on bee pollination.

But bees are now in danger of dying out. In the winter of 2008, one in three hives were lost. A survey by the British Beekeepers’ Association in May 2010 revealed their members had lost 19 per cent of their colonies (the population that inhabits a hive) in the previous year alone. The precise reasons still baffle scientists, but a combination of factors is thought to be to blame.

Honeybees sterilise their hives by coating all surfaces with propolis, a resin they produce. But the arrival of the varroa mite, a tiny rust-coloured crab-shaped parasite, in a hive compromises this healthy home. This mite, which has spread across the world in the past two decades, sucks the blood of bee pupae and bees, and a whole colony can be destroyed in two to four years.

It is also believed the chemicals in pesticides interfere with the bees’ personal electrical and chemical signals, causing problems for their navigation systems. And just as a varied diet is good for human health, it is also essential for a bee’s immune system. Unless it can feed on a variety of pollens, the bee becomes more susceptible to disease. The monoculture practices of modern farming, in which vast acreages are dedicated to one crop, are not helping matters.

The honeybee and the bumblebee are social creatures, living in colonies in man-made hives of up 70,000 in the case of the former, and cavities in the ground containing, typically, about 300 in the case of the latter.
The solitary bee usually lives in pairs in narrow holes in walls and in decaying wood. All three types make honey by mixing nectar from flowers with various enzymes and then evaporating much of the moisture by fanning the mixture with their wings.

They use the honey to feed their offspring and to fuel their wing muscles – a honeybee flaps its wings about 230 times a second and would get about seven million miles out of a gallon of honey.
However, few go as far as four miles from the hive and their top speed is about 22mph. To collect a pound of honey, a bee would have to fly more than 50,000 miles – equivalent to twice around the world. It would involve visiting many tens of thousands of flowers in hundreds of expeditions foraging for nectar and pollen.
By the way, bees are usually amiable creatures and sting only in defence, but a stinging bee often releases chemicals summoning its fellows to its aid. If you are stung, it’s a good idea to go indoors.

Although a bee’s brain is about the size of a grass seed, some scientific research suggests that bees may be able to distinguish between different human faces, and folklore certainly credits the creatures with a degree of intelligence.
It has long been traditional among beekeepers to talk to their charges. If there was a death in a beekeeping family, it was thought polite and proper to ‘tell the bees’. Some believed the bees would swarm in indignation if the sad news was not formally and promptly delivered. Similarly, the bees would be informed of a wedding and possibly even presented with some wedding cake.

In the case of bumblebees, gardeners can deploy a range of bee-friendly plants to keep them in nectar and pollen throughout the year. Fruit trees, crocuses, poppies, comfrey and pea crops are important in spring. Thyme, geranium, buddleia, lavender, rosemary and salvia are good for autumn. You would think nothing of giving a bunch of flowers to a valued friend, so why not say it with flowers to a bee?

Also, try not to be excessively tidy in your garden. A pile of sticks or leaves might make a home for bees, as might an overturned flowerpot.
A teapot that is filled with dry moss or grass and buried in the soil with just the spout visible provides a nesting site that would make any bee proud.
An old adage has it that ‘a swarm in May is worth a bundle of hay, a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon and a swarm in July isn’t worth a fly’. In other words, the earlier in the year that the farmer can obtain bees to make honey, the better it is for him.
Considering the plight of bees today, let us hope we don’t have a year full of Julys.

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