Last Monday was United Nations World Bee Day. This was a call to stop and look at the small, colourful insect unobtrusively making its pollen-gathering way through gardens and parks in much reduced numbers.
Ten years ago, I noted hundreds, if not thousands, of humming bees on a sward near house building, gorging on red-and-white clover. They were mainly honey bees, workers from wild nests, some solitary toilers and at the edges, bumbles (Bombus hortorum), those casually calming creatures, diligently going about their business kitted in strip of black, yellow and white, which love to dive into flower bells and burrow beneath the silken folds of rose petals. But bumbles make up just 1pc of the Earth’s seriously declining bee species of about 25,000.
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They are closest to our hearts, though, especially regal queens that must begin new colonies each spring and feed the workers that emerge until they set out to find food for her majesty. Then there are the hairy-footed species which don’t make honey, the solitary fellows, the plasterers which line their nests, miners that go underground and leaf-cutters which protect their homes with pieces of rose leaves.
The UN has already warned of the imminent collapse of many wild species including thousands of bee types, 37pc of which have declined with 9pc facing extinction. Alison Benjamin, author of a forthcoming book, The Good Bee: A celebration of bees – and how to save them, has written that a bee visiting a flower is “an act of nature playing out for more than 100 million years”.
Flowering plants evolved with bees. As the bee goes from flower to flower (collecting nectar to fuel her flight and pollen to feed her family) she moves pollen from stamen to pistill (male to female plant part) so that the plant can produce seeds. Benjamin quotes the poet Kahlil Gibran’s beautifully described symbiotic relationship: “To a bee a flower is the fountain of life and to the flower the bee is a messenger of love.”
The role of bees in agriculture is pivotal: they pollinate trees whose oxygen we breathe and which mitigate the climate crisis and also the flora that feeds other insects, birds, mammals in the food chain which produces fruits, vegetables, seeds and fodder.
In the past 70 years farming has become highly industrialised, eliminating wildflower meadows that provided food and habitat for bees, replacing them with vast tracts of monoculture for silage making. There are signs, however, that pitfalls are being recognised with the EU banning the use of neonicotinoid pesticides – a toxic substance that caused the disorientation and deaths of countless numbers of bees.
Herbicide bans are needed now. Tests have shown that pollinated crops have produced bumper harvests. Bavaria, in Germany, is leading the way. Almost two million people signed a bee-saving petition demanding 20pc of farmland become bee-friendly within six years.
Urban places are also crucial and local authorities must halt spraying in public parks. If they think ‘weeds’ are unsightly, remove by hand and hoe – and be guided by those who use the parks. Remember, in saving bees, we are saving ourselves.
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