SAFEGUARDING THE INVISIBLE HELPERS OF FARMERS
Value transmitted over time // Myth and reality
When thinking about bees, which we officially celebrate on May 20th for World Bee Day, few of us know little more than the fact that they are the producers of this sweet, thick, pale-amber thing called honey. In fact, the value of these precious pollinators, to whom we owe most of the foods that come to our tables, has been understood and recognized by traditional cultures since the beginning of our history.
In ancient Greek mythology and according to the traditional knowledge of some Mediterranean cultures, bees are associated with divinity. According to an ancient Greek myth, Zeus’ mother Rhea gave birth to the king of gods in the Cave of Ideo Andro, Crete, where neither gods nor humans could enter. There, the infant who would one day sit on the throne of Mount Olympus was fed honey by bees, who then turned into the nymphs who now patrol woods, trees, and caves where water flows — the exact same places where wild bees nest and produce honey. This story illustrates the complex symbology about bees and honey among ancient Mediterranean cultures in which bees were sacred creatures, associated with the Gods.
Apart from being encapsulated into age-old legends and myths, bees — and honey — have in some cases been considered as conveyors of magical or pharmacological properties, like in the Ayurvedic tradition of some remote villages in India and Sri Lanka, where honey is still used as a treatment for eye disease or throat infections, and honey bee venom is a valuable remedy for arthritis and joint inflammation.
Invisible guardians of the Planet…
It is only in recent years, and due to the unprecedented crisis of bee colony collapse, that these invisible pollinators have begun to be seen, considered, and valued again. Not only for their mythological role of providing divine nourishment for the people, but also as transmitters of nourishment for the planet. How can that be?
It is well known now that bees are first in line when it comes to pollinating crops and wild plants. By flying from plant to plant, they transport pollen from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma of another one, and thus indirectly fecundate it and determine the production of seeds, which will fall on the soil and eventually grow into other plants. Bees are, therefore, the guardians of biodiversity. According to the EU Pollinators Initiative, they pollinate as many as 170,000 plant species worldwide, including about 78% of the native flora of the European continent.
… and friendly assistants of the People
That also means that bees are the silent activists of global food and social security. In fact, according to Prof. Keith S. Delaplane, professor of Entomology, “about 75% of the world’s crops benefit to some degree from animal pollination; and 10% of that 75% depend fully on animal pollination.” As such, bees are also considered the invisible helpers of farmers around the globe, fostering pollination of flowers that otherwise wouldn’t grow into a fruit, a pod, or a nut, like coffee, chocolate, almonds, and cocoa. These insects not only secure income and jobs for small and family farms, but can in some cases, double the yield, like in Guatemala, representing remarkable support for farmers.
However, despite the hard work they give away for free, the current state in which bees live is not the most optimistic. According to a German study, flying insect populations have declined by over 75% in just 27 years, with wild pollinators — bees in particular — facing a vast array of threats that are driving their decline. These include loss of habitats, pesticide use, invasive alien species, climate change, and environmental pollution. It is a situation that heavily affects both developing and developed economies. In fact, the IUCN European Red List of Bees revealed that over 9% of European bee species face extinction. However, the same report shows that the status of more than half of bee species in Europe is unknown, which means a far higher proportion of European bee species could be in trouble.
It is a price we cannot afford to pay, as bees are very effective and cheap bioindicators when it comes to pollution biomonitoring, both because of their morphology and behavior: a honey bee alone can travel up to eight kilometers for food, if necessary! This is why the European Union is among the vanguard to protect wild pollinators. In addition to the tailored 2018 EU Pollinator Initiative to increase overall expenditures on national apiculture programs, bee protection is also at the foundation of the Zero Pollution Action Plan and the Farm to fork Strategy, with which the Commission aims to cut the use of chemical pesticides by 50% and to reduce fertilizers by 20% by 2030.
Everything is connected
Implementing these strategies will impact not only the survival and prosperity of bees but also the cascading environmental and societal benefits they bring. The theme for this year’s World Bee Day is “building back better” and how to boost post-COVID-19 recovery through environmental regeneration and pollinator protection. Can bees carry such a burden?
Showcasing the interconnection and synergy between the critical role bees play in the food system and the benefit that a sound and biodiverse environment can have on their populations is not easy. In brief, a healthy environment contributes to healthier bee populations. Their preservation then determines more biodiversity, more consistent yields, and the delivery of more ecosystem services. This, in turn, allows for less invasive and intensive agricultural practices, which result in less environmental degradation and pollution, boosting bees’ numbers.
These are win-win approaches that are just waiting to be translated into reality.
How? By promoting for, example local, food systems, active management of the local environment, regenerative food production practices. Land is a resource that can be used to support biodiversity and pollinators, if used consciously, rather than abandoned, as studies in the Mediterranean area confirm.
Once again, the inclusion of fruits and vegetables and the adoption of healthy and sustainable food consumption patterns and lifestyles, like the Mediterranean Diet, can play a fundamental role in shaping a more sustainable and healthy future for us, for the planet, and also for the bees. Favoring the prosperity of these pollinators, from a more integrated perspective, means ensuring food security and resilience of the food system. What comes out of this virtuous cycle, in the end, is overall health and prosperity, and a more sustainable future. I like to call it a practical translation of the concept of integral ecology.
The Future Food Institute is an international ecosystem that believes climate change is at the end of your fork. By harnessing the power of its global ecosystem of partners, innovators, researchers, educators, and entrepreneurs, FFI aims to sustainably improve life on Earth through transformation of global food systems.
FFI catalyzes progress towards the UN Agenda 2030 of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by training the next generation of changemakers, empowering communities, and engaging government and industry in actionable impact-driven innovation.