What’s all the buzz about?

You may have heard, the bees are in danger.

bee

Well in fact, they are experiencing what is know as colony collapse disorder (sounds pretty nasty to me), which means the hives are dying off.  The culprits for this are wide ranging including pesticides, climate change, altered land use and alien species (not actual aliens, species that are not native to an area).  But the crux of the matter is, no one is sure if there is one cause, or if it’s a combination of many factors.

Why should we care?  Surely a lack of bees in the summer time will make for a more pleasant trip to the beer garden?  Well, I’m no biologist so I consulted an expert. Katy Orford is a Biology PhD student who studies the role of pollinators within an ecosystem, and was happy to answer my questions on the matter of bees.

Why are bees important?

Bees are an essential part of the ecosystem as they are great pollinators.  They make continual visits to flowers and can carry a lot of pollen so are seen to be the most important pollinator out there.  Nectar from plants is a source of carbohydrates for them whereas the pollen is a source of protein, which is vital for reproduction.  As bees live in colonies, they are able to collect large quantities of pollen in special sacks on their legs, which means they can bring all the lovely pollen back to the colony safely.

There has been significant changes in their distribution since the 1980s with many species in decline.  Honeybees have been heavily affected by pathogens and parasites, which is one of the causes for colony collapse disorder.  This decline has meant that farmers have had to import bees from special bee farmer to help pollinate their crops.

If we have no more bees, will it only affect the pollination of flowers

The food chain pyramid. If those bees don't do their job that there pyramid will collapse!
The food chain pyramid. If those bees don’t do their job that there pyramid will collapse!

For a start, pollination is not only important for flowers but for crops as well, with 35% of the global crop-based food production relying on it.  Globally, that is worth about $217 billion a year!  Aside from this, the ecosystems are made up of a network of interactions. Pollination is one process but it can have great knock-on effects if it declines or stops altogether.  Remember back to GCSE science, with the food chain pyramid.  If there is no pollination, then the “producers” (the base of the pyramid) will decline and this, in turn, will have a cascading impact on the rest of the ecosystem.

 

Surely wasps are useful pollinators, or maybe even butterflies?

Flies may not be as cute as a bee but they sure could be useful in the long run!
Flies may not be as cute as a bee but they sure could be useful in the long run!

It seems like bees are the darlings of the pollinator community and have received much more attention both by the media and the scientific community.  Other insects, of course, visit flowers and have the ability to move the pollen about; however, unlike bees, they tend to visit these flowers less often, which is why they often get overlooked!  An example of one such overlooked insect is flies. These are one of the most abundant and diverse animal groups in the world and should not be ignored as potential pollinators.

What are these pesticides that have now been banned and do you think this will help the bees (and other pollinators), or is it too little too late?

These pesticides are called neonicotinoids and have been seen, in laboratory experiments, to reduce bumble bee colony growth and queen bee production (vital in the survival of bees as these critters can’t do anything without a woman about it seems!).  Since bees are in serious decline, any steps governments can make to prevent their use should be taken; however, as the neonicotinoids have only just been withdrawn it is hard to assess whether or not this is going to help the bees.  Also, as pesticides are not the only thing affecting the bees, other steps maybe needed to counteract the problem.

So if you want to help our declining bee population there are a few things you can do:

  • Give those bees what they want – more flowers!
  • Stop using pesticides (obviously this is talking to a niche market of the BetweenaRock audience)
  • Become a passive beekeeper and adopt a hive
  • When you see a bee….don’t reach for that swatter, just let him go about his business, as I am pretty sure he is much more scared of us than we are of him

 

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About KT Cooper

I’m a carbonate biogeochemist. When I’m not in the Bahamas, I dabble in the world of computer modelling.

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