The bees are dying

Since 2006, the US has lost 30–40% of commercial honeybees.

Key Numbers:

  • 37%: The percentage of bee species with declining populations
  • 71 out of 100: The number of world crop species bees directly pollinate
  • $256bn: The annual value of pollinator crops in the global food supply

The concept of the butterfly effect is based around the idea that small causes can have much larger effects. The oft-cited classic example is that a butterfly flaps its wings, then weeks later a tornado forms. It’s a metaphorical description that was frequently used in science before making its way into popular culture. We can also use this metaphor in reverse to talk about how a lack of small causes can have a very large effect. In this case, we’re talking about The Bee Effect.

Bees are dying. All across the world we’re witnessing the ongoing decline of bee populations. Since 2006, the US has lost 30–40% of commercial honeybees. Chart the data back to 1985 and it reveals a 25% drop in the number of commercial honeybees in the EU and a 45% drop in the number in the UK. A recent report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services revealed that 9% of bee and butterfly species are actually under threat of extinction, and 37% of all bee species are seeing a decline in their populations. In North America, the the population of 700 bee species are shown to be in decline, and half of these are threatened with extinction. You can’t argue with the facts — bees are in trouble.

As humans we’re prone to thinking small things don’t have an effect, right up until the effects are so big that they slap us in the face.

Individually, bees are small. As humans we’re prone to thinking small things don’t have an effect, right up until the effects are so big that they slap us in the face. At the moment the effect of a decline in bees hasn’t been felt full force. It’s as if the hand is in the air, and at any moment it’s going to swing down and knock us for six. Awareness of the decline in populations has only been fully brought to the fore in recent years, and now we’re looking ahead to what might happen and wondering how to stop the rot.

Nature’s Key Pollinators

The reason bees are so important is that they are one of the key pollinators in nature. Pollination is absolutely vital for plants — 85% of all plants rely on pollination by animals. There are roughly 100 crop species that provide food worldwide. Of these, 71 are pollinated by bees. In Europe, 84% of the 264 crop species are pollinated by animals, and bees alone are responsible for pollinating some 4,000 varieties of vegetable. To further put this in perspective: pollinated crops make up 35% of the global food supply.

The problem is simple: less bees = less pollination = less crops = less food.

The problem is simple: less bees = less pollination = less crops = less food. When you combine this with a rising population and increasing global demand for food, the problem is compounded. And it’s not only a problem of less food. Pollination is vital for biodiversity, so a lack of pollinators will send ripples through the ecosystem. Increased pollination provides fruit and food for insects, birds, fish and mammals, as well as helping to maintain vegetation cover and plant productivity. This has the knock on effect of preventing erosion, increasing carbon sequestration, controlling climate systems and more.

Even if you’re the kind of person who thinks all decisions should be based on economic factors, there is reason to sit up and take notice. The most recent figures place a value of $265bn on pollinator-dependent crops in the global food supply.

What is killing the bees?

Before we can begin to address the problems of a declining bee population, we need to understand why this is happening. Unfortunately there is no single easy answer to the question, and there are multiple reasons for the change. One of the key causes is the increase in the use of insecticides. These specialist forms of pesticides are designed to kill off specific insects, but the problem is that why while they may not have lethal effects on bees, the sub-lethal effects are numerous, including effects on mobility, navigation and orientation, feeding behaviour, learning performance and more.

Climate change has also been having an effect on pollinators. An increase in global temperature over the past 25 years has lead to honeybees in Poland bringing forward the date of their first winter flight by a full month. As the effects of climate change become even more exacerbated with increasing rainfalls and rising temperatures, we can expect to see more disruptive effects on bees and their environment.

If we want to reverse this trend of declining bee population and avoid a potential impending disaster then we need to take action right now. A first step would be to ban the use of harmful pesticides that impact on bees. Next, we need to promote agricultural practices that benefit pollination. After that we need to improve the conservation of the natural habitats that surround agricultural landscapes. Finally, we need policy makers to start funding research into ecological farming and to move away from a dependence on the use of pesticides in agriculture.

Bees might be dying, but there’s still a chance to save them.

Further Reading: Related Start Ups and Organizations

This series of articles has been prepared with the support of our partner Viessmann — they’re celebrating 100 years of their company this year (2017) and are actively involved in positively shaping the next 100 years.