When the bees are gone
Pesticide use, habitat loss, diseases, parasites and global warming are plunging the honeybee population into decline, so much so that fruit farmers in China and elsewhere are doing the work of bees. Why? Because you have a bee to thank for every one in three bites of food you ingest.
Doing the work of bees
In China’s mountainous Maoxian region in Sichuan Province, there are 6,437-hectares of pear and apple orchards. Every year, villagers descend on the farmlands to begin for the monumental task of pollinating every single fruit blossom – by hand.
Apple production in the Maoxian valley began in 1946 with 400 trees. By the 1980s, the region had over 200,000 trees, with apples being the county’s leading crop yield. By the late 1990s, Maoxian was producing over 30,000 tonnes a year to the value of USD6.4 million. With this burgeoning commercial success came the increased use of pesticides, overtaking the more traditional organic fertilisation methods. The 1990s saw overall apple productivity decline by half, attributed to the mysterious disappearance of bees.
The pollination of apples in Maoxian has to be completed within five days in order for the trees to bear fruit. When the trees blossom, the villagers go out en mass, armed with small paint brushes. They use homemade pollination sticks made from chicken feathers and cigarette filters and dip them into a pot full of purchased pollen, and then rub the end of the stick to the pistils of the tree flowers. Children clamber up to pollinate the higher parts of the tree. One person can pollinate between five to ten trees in a day. However, the long-term viability of hand pollination is being challenged by rising labour costs and declining fruit yields.
BioProfit conducted an investigation into the declining bee issue in the Sichuan Valley in 2001. The main factors they pinpointed were i) pesticides and ii) over-farming.
China’s Ministry of Agriculture has set out standards for pesticide usage, but implementing them is challenging because natural pesticides are far more than the chemical equivalents, and so the budget-conscious farmer will go for the cheaper, albeit more environmentally harmful, option.
Regarding over-farming, the Maoxin farmers concentrated on planting commercially viable trees. In turn, they did not pay sufficient attention to planting polliniser trees, such as the crabapple tree – which are introduced to the orchard to provide pollen for the bees to fertilise with. This results in the destruction of the bees natural habitat.
In 2011, BioProfit returned to the region. They found that many farmers had substituted their apple plantations with other crop varieties that didn’t require bees for pollination. The once lucrative Maowen apple industry operates at a fraction of its previous productivity.
The bigger picture
Bees are perhaps the most important insects on the planet, for they pollinate our crops; about three quarters of all the types of crops we grow to eat need pollination by insects to give a full crop yield. Without bees, we would not have raspberries, runner beans, courgettes, tomatoes, chilli peppers or coffee, to name just a few. About a third of all the food we consume by weight depends upon pollinators. Without bees, our diet would consist largely of produce from wind-pollinated plants; rice, maize, wheat and barley. In short, without bees our diets would be more than a little dull.
There are 20,000 known species of bee in the world, plus other insects such as hoverflies, butterflies and beetles that also pollinate. Disturbingly, however, many of these pollinators are in decline. Some species are extinct, while others cling on to existence; Populations of insects such as the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexipus) in North America, or the great yellow bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus) in Europe have dropped by about 90 percent.
This is a matter of the utmost concern, for we cannot feed a growing global human population without our insect allies.
Humans have created a hive of problems for pollinators – to such an extent that in some parts of the world the bee population has collapsed.
- Lack of wild flowers; caused by large scale farming and de-weeding fields of crops. Some crops, such as oilseed rape or sunflowers, provide food for bees, but only for a week or two, and for the rest of the year there is nothing for them to eat.
- Bee diseases and parasites; this is inadvertently spread by humans with domestic honeybees and commercially-reared bumblebees, used for tomato pollination. For example, the careless movement of bees has spread the Varroa mite – a blood-sucking parasite which attacks honeybees – to almost every country in the world. Similarly, wild Japanese bumblebees now have to cope with attacks of European tracheal mites, tiny creatures that infest their breathing airways.
- Insecticides; Farmers spray their crops with organophosphates, pyrethroids and neonicotinoids, all chemicals intended to kill pests, but which inevitably cause collateral damage as they are toxic to bees. The neonicotinoids are particularly insidious for they are persistent and systemic, getting into plant tissues and then into their nectar and pollen.
These findings were raised in a 2016 UN biodiversity report that warned that the populations of bees, butterflies, and other pollinating species could face extinction due to these various influences of habitat loss, pollution, pesticides, and climate change.
A growing problem
Hand pollination activity is not a problem or phenomenon unique to China. Similar stories are emerging elsewhere in the world; in parts of Brazil, passion-fruit farmers now pollinate by hand, while in Calcutta, India, farmers are now forced to hand pollinate their vegetable crops.
It is terribly sad that we are reaching this point; that we have created a world where other creatures, even those which do us an enormous service, are not allowed room to live.
We need crops to feed the world. But if we lose our bees, we are making that task much harder. We urgently need to find better ways to grow food – sustainable methods that do not erode our planet’s resources, and that allow room for other species to survive.
Unless we do so, it may not just be the bees that eventually fall silent.
Boxout Saving the Bees Greenpeace proposed three solutions to start working towards saving bees:
1) Ban the seven most dangerous pesticides
2) Protect pollinator health by preserving wild habitat
3) Restore ecological agriculture