To celebrate the United Nations’ World Bee Day, Environmental Consultant Natalie McClay tells ICON readers about our precious pollinators and how we can take care of them.
Unsung heroes of the natural world, bees visit and pollinate more than 90% of the world’s top 107 crops, all free of charge!
The United Nations declared the 20th May as World Bee Day to encourage governments, organisations and concerned citizens to raise awareness of these precious pollinators. The date coincides with the birthday of Anton Janša, who pioneered modern beekeeping techniques in Slovenia in the 18th century.
Pollinators are part of the UK’s ‘natural capital’, meaning our stock of natural assets that provide us with a range of benefits underpinning the economy and society. In fact, more than 50% of the world’s GDP is moderately or heavily dependent on nature in its various forms.
Bees offer us a variety of benefits aside from pollination that are crucial to the production of crops. They also provide us food (honey, royal jelly and pollen) and products such as beeswax and propolis. Beekeeping also offers an important income source for many and according to IPBES, the western honey bee is the most widespread managed pollinator globally.
Although there are 80 million managed hives that produce an estimated 1.6 million tonnes of honey annually, global bee populations are in steep decline. Bee population decline cannot be attributed to one source alone, but here are some of them.
As the climate changes and the seasons begin to shift, scientists predict that bee nesting behaviour and how they emerge after winter hibernation is disrupted. Climatic changes also affect the timing of flowering for the plants that bees rely on.
As flowering periods move to later in the season and bees begin to move north due to temperature and weather changes, the areas of the UK where bees overlap with key crops may shrink over time if climate change and bee decline are allowed to continue at this rate.
The use of pesticides has been linked to a reduction in breeding success and resistance to disease in bee populations. In 2018, the European Union widened its ban on the widespread use of insecticides known as neonicotinoids to an almost complete ban, linking their use to honeybee decline. Pesticides are also thought to impair honeybees’ ability to navigate, bumblebees’ ability to reproduce and can cause infertility in solitary bees.
Land use change
Intensive farming in the UK has led to the loss and fragmentation of natural habitats, threatening many native British species, including our pollinators.
Many of the UK’s landscapes have been changed irreversibly; only 2% of the wildflower meadows present during the 1950s remain today. Bees depend on habitats full of flowers, and in the absence of natural meadows, farmers can use customised seed mixes that support the local wild bees. However, these seed mixes can be expensive.
Habitat destruction leads to less land for bees to forage and shelter in and restoring these natural habitats could benefit farmers by reintroducing this key ecosystem service.
We have a duty to tackle the factors leading to bee decline, and because they provide us with free ecosystem services, it also makes economic sense. This is another reason to tackle climate change, and moving to a net zero economy helps to prevent further damage. By moving to a net zero emissions world, we can hopefully move towards a zero species loss world too.
What can I do?
To help preserve bees and other pollinators, there are several things we can all do:
- Plant pollinator-friendly species such as lavender and buddleia.
- Buy local honey.
- Cut grass on meadows only after nectar-bearing plants have finished blooming.
- Use bee-friendly pesticides and only in windless weather.
- Participate in the UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme (PoMS) and BeeWalk to monitor local bee numbers.
If you would like to learn more about the work to help Britain’s bees, please visit the British Beekeeper Association website.
As an environmental consultant at Inspired PLC, Natalie is passionate about all forms of wildlife, including bees!