What's the 'Bee's Knees' about Bees'?

“The general public should know our food system is threatened by the fact that the bees are in trouble. And they should care about that because they eat food.” SUSAN KEGLEY CEO and Founder of the Pesticide research Institute, The Pollinators

75% of the food we eat is in some way dependent on the work of bees and other pollinators. Many of these foods are household favourites and nutritionally dense: blueberries, chocolate, coffee, melons, peaches, pumpkins, vanilla, and almonds. There are thought to be 20,000 different species of bees: birds, butterflies, bats (yes bats carry pollen as well as viruses), beetles and other small mammals also pollinate plants and thus play a vital role in our food security too. Did you know - a fly, the size of a pinhead, is responsible for the world's supply of chocolate? 
 

'Our Future Flies with Pollinators' poster by Pollinators.org; highlighting the multiple ecosystem services pollinators provide.
'Our Future Flies with Pollinators' poster by Pollinators.org; highlighting the multiple ecosystem services pollinators provide. 


Pollination is the highest agricultural contributor to yields worldwide and pollination-dependent crops are five times more valuable than those that do not need pollination. The price tag of global crops directly relying on pollinators is estimated to be between US$235 and US$577 billion a year.

The benefits of pollinators also contribute to the quality of our eco-system and the services they provide are vast. José Graziano da Silva, Former FAO Director-General, outlines the role of bees and other pollinators in “increasing food security, improving nutrition and fighting hunger as well as in providing key ecosystem services for agriculture”. This includes providing medicinal properties, increasing the resilience and livelihoods of rural and indigenous communities, and helping in mitigating climate change by preventing soil erosion and increasing carbons sequestration. 

Unfortunately, largely due to human action, present species extinction rates are 100 to 1,000 times higher than normal. 


Causes of the mass decline in pollinator populations?

Monoculture farming Intensive, large-scale, single crop agriculture is destroying the habitats and food supply of pollinators. Changes in land use, landscape structure and monocultures have reduced the diversity of forage limiting pollinators food resources and nutrition. 

Climate change, leading to higher temperatures, droughts, floods and other extreme climate events are desynchronising the demand (flowers in bloom) with the supply of service providers (abundant and diverse populations of pollinators) and therefore hindering the ability of pollinators to do their job. 

Pesticides, specifically the widely used neonicotinoids, are very toxic and chemical exposure weaken and kill bees and other pollinators. 

The decline in and weakened immunity of pollinator populations is reducing their ability to pollinate plants and thus the nutritional quality of crops is declining. This is expected to impact the production and cost of vitamin-rich crops like fruits and vegetables, leading to increasingly unbalanced diets and health problems, such as malnutrition and non-communicable diseases.
 

What can we do as Eaters, Gardeners, Chefs and Farmers to protect the abundance, diversity and health of the bees and pollinators? 

Eaters 

Buy local honey to support your local beekeepers. Supporting your local economies, sourcing your food from farmers markets and participating in shorter supply chains helps sustain local, small scale, diverse agriculture. Adopting greater diversity in your diet also supports a more diverse agricultural landscape. 

Chefs 

Use a symbol, such as a bee or hummingbird, on your menu or throughout your store to indicate which foods require pollinators. Identifying foods created through pollination helps to emphasize the role pollinators’ play in the food system. People will be surprised at how much of the food they eat is brought to them by pollinators.

Gardeners 

Bee making honey Design your garden so that there is a continuous succession of plants flowering from spring through fall. Reducing the amount you mow the lawn will provide forage for pollinators or further still replacing lawn grass with flower beds will create a pollinator-friendly garden. Planting native to your region and selecting old-fashioned varieties of flowers whenever possible will help attract and nourish local pollinators.

Avoid pesticides. From pepper and garlic spray, to apple-cider vinegar there are many natural ingredients that can fend off pests without harming pollinators. If you must use them, use the most selective and least toxic ones and apply them after the sun drops when most pollinators aren't active. Waiting until after the blooming season has passed to apply pesticides makes it much less likely to cause harm to pollinators and applying on a dry day helps reduce the amount of toxins the plants retain

A shallow supply of water provides a gathering spot and installing 'houses' creates a nesting ground for bats and native bees. For example, use wood blocks with holes or small open patches of mud. As little as 12” across is sufficient for some bees.

Leaving a patch of ground bare, exposed soil or mound of sand provides and protects the nesting ground of many pollinators. As many reside in dried plant stalks over winter, leaving your garden clean up till the following spring gives pollinators a nesting ground throughout winter. 
 

Farmers 

Honey bees are a ‘sentinel’ (indicator species), signalling the health of the ecology along the food chain. Pollinating insects help to increase your crop yields and add money to your bottom line. Inadequate pollination will reduce your yields, result in inferior flavour, produce smaller, misshapen fruits with fewer seeds, slow fruit maturation, increase disease in fruit and take money from budget. Therefore providing a healthy environment for bees and pollinators is critical for farmers. 

Promoting healthy soils and adopting regenerative agricultural practices will support the health of bees and the many benefits they bring. Adopting this style of farming involves: 

  • Minimising or eliminating tillage - many pollinators nest in below the soil

  • Rebuilding organic soil matter 

  • Increasing the diversity of crops grown

  • Combining crop production with livestock

  • Reduce or eliminate pesticides 

This will support other wildlife such as birds and game animals, improve the quality of water runoff, decrease your soil loss, and reduce your need for expensive pesticides. 
 

For More on ‘Bee Friendly Farming’ see these resources by:


Finally, in celebration of the amazing work bees and pollinators do for our existence the new film The Pollinators, directed by Peter Nelson, available digitally on June 16th, will showcase the work of pollinators in producing our food.