There are about 20,000 different species of bee found all over the world. In the UK, we have about 270 species, including honey bees, and they’re responsible for pollinating 80% of our wildflowers. They also pollinate important crops like apples, beans, squashes and almonds, providing us with a free but vitally important service.
If bees disappear, we’d have big problems producing enough food. So it’s worrying that, like many other insects, bee numbers are plummeting. A third of UK bees have disappeared in the last 10 years and a quarter of European species are at risk of extinction. Bee losses are particularly concerning because they are more efficient pollinators than other animals. Studies have shown bee-pollinated foods can be bigger and healthier.
The most significant threat to bees and other insects is the loss of their natural habitat. Bees and other pollinators rely on wildflower meadows for food and shelter, but since 1945 the UK has lost a staggering 97% of these areas. Intensive farming has removed many of these meadows, along with other wildlife-friendly features such as hedgerows, water meadows and ponds. Expanding urban development has also paved over large areas, leaving nothing left for bees and other insects.
Climate change is also having an impact. The shift in temperatures and seasons affects when insects are active and when food is available, which may no longer coincide. New pests and diseases can also strike as the climate changes, devastating bee colonies which have little or no resistance.
Another big factor is the widespread use of agricultural chemicals. Herbicides kill off many plants which are important to bees, and even though pesticides aren’t designed to kill bees, they still cause harm. Studies have shown that pesticides can affect bees’ navigational abilities and breeding success, and pesticides are unsurprisingly ravaging other insects as well.
One group of pesticides – neonicotinoids – is particularly nasty, and has now been partially banned in the EU. The ban came about despite massive opposition from the chemical industry and the UK government. Companies and lobbyists have challenged scientific findings, claiming that studies have been badly designed and produced unreliable results. They’ve even hidden evidence – a Greenpeace investigation revealed how chemical giants Bayer and Syngenta sat on their own studies which showed how neonicotinoids harm bees at certain levels.
A neonicotinoid ban in Europe is a step forward but it’s not the whole solution. We need to slash the use of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals around the world. We also need to switch to less intensive, more sustainable farming methods. Not only will this help bees and other insects, it will be better for our health and reduce carbon emissions causing climate change.