Where did all the bees go?



© Thomas L Gilbert

Decline of the Bees

In recent years bee numbers in the UK and indeed across the world have been declining dramatically. The significance of this is perhaps best described by Albert Einstein, who when referring to bees stated, “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

It is believed that bees are responsible for the pollination of approximately one out of every three bites of food we eat. Foods pollinated includes all fruit and most vegetables. Those foods that are subsequently processed from pollinated ingredients also have to be considered and these include such staples as jam, wine, cider, cooking oils, fruit juices, coffee and chocolate. It is perhaps a little easier to appreciate the enormous value, both monetary and otherwise, of the work undertaken by bees and other pollinating insects.

The monetary value (while only secondary to the health of the bees and the planet) does in itself provide a convincing argument for the bee cause, so much so that even those unconcerned with “green" and “environmental" issues can’t fail to take notice. The numbers are indeed that shocking. It is estimated that if the UK were to pollinate all of the crops currently needed for food production “manually” (i.e. by human labour and equipment) the cost to achieve this would be £1.5 billion per year! The contrary services is currently provided by bees quite happily for free.


What’s the problem?

We have seen the decline of bees and the significance of this and so we must consider the reason as to why bee and pollinator numbers are in decline. Much research has been undertaken to investigate the cause of declines and perhaps the most realistic view to be derived from the research is that no one factor is alone responsible for declines, per se, but rather that several factors in combination are responsible for pushing bees and pollinators to their limits, hindering their ability to survive and even thrive in their environments.


Pesticides, Herbicides and Fungicides

Perhaps the most topical factor impacting pollinator numbers is the use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. These are in essence manufactured chemicals that the UK (and indeed many other countries) spray our crops with in order to control insect pests, competing plants (some may call them weeds but lets call them wild flowers), and fungi. The purpose of which is to improve production yields. While there is some regulation as to the types and number of chemicals that are used, many argue that they simply should not be used at all as it is far too difficult to estimate their potential impact on the environment and the the health of those in that environment (that includes ourselves). The main cause for concern is that while chemicals are tested for their potential impact, it is difficult to predicting the impact of chemicals used in combinations with one another. These chemical cocktails are believed to be affecting many animals and wildlife with their true impact remaining relatively unknown. Perhaps more worryingly when we discuss the dangers of chemical use in crop production in relation to the environment is the reality that most of the crops produced are for human consumption at some stage. It is incredibly difficult to calculate our potential level of ingestion in relation to chemicals used in food production methods, yet even more difficult to speculate on what the impact of this could be.


Varroa Mites

Admittedly, most people have never heard of a varroa mite unless you have had something to do with bees in the last decade. In essence, it is a small parasitic mite that attacks honey bees. It attaches to the body of the bee and weakens the bee by sucking hemolymph (the fluid of the circulatory system). A significant mite infestation will lead to the death of a honey bee colony.


Decline of food sources

Bees rely on the availability of food sources such as nectar and pollen in the environment. It is unfortunate that the biodiversity of the UK has changed somewhat in the last century with a decrease in the number of wild plants and flowers available for foraging insects. This can be attributed to the overall reduction of “green spaces”, increased land development, increased agriculture and to the reduction of hedgerows and flower meadows. Agriculture is particularly significant as both pastoral and arable farming offers little for pollinators, with cereal crops (i.e. wheat, barley, etc.) being of no use to pollinators. The reduction of hedgerows can also be linked to agriculture as hedge rows were destroyed in order to make larger fields that could accommodate modern machinery.


Habitat decline

Inevitably linked with the decline of food sources, is the the decline of suitable habitats in which pollinators can establish homes. Hedgerows for many species provide suitable habitat and which we have already mentioned have declined. Likewise, long grassland and woodland also provide habitats but in some areas these have also declined substantially.


How can I help?

Well, admittedly the picture does look pretty bleak for our bees and pollinators but the good news is that we do not believe we are past the point of no return. There are many things that we can all do, both collectively and as individuals, that can make a real difference.


Wildlife Gardening

Wildlife gardening is perhaps the biggest thing we can all do. Think of your garden (no matter how small, each window box and pot counts!) as your own private nature reserve. All you need to do is follow some simple basics;

- Avoid the use of chemicals such as weed-killers and pesticides (if your garden is healthy you shouldn’t need them anyway).

- Try to provide a range of plants that flower at different times (succession of flowering is important to ensure there are sources of pollen and nectar whenever it is needed).

- Put up a bee box to provide vital habitat for non-swarming solitary bees.


For more extensive info on wildlife gardening see “Wildlife Gardening for Non-Gardeners” (coming soon).



Maybe practical just isn’t your think but you’d still like to help the plight of bees and pollinators. There are several organisations that are actively working and campaigning for bees and pollinators, all of which I’m sure would greatly appreciate any donations you are able to give.


Purchasing Power

One of the biggest contributions you can make as a consumer is to buy organic products. As demand for organic products rises, production methods will change to keep up with demand, hopefully resulting in organic methods becoming dominant. If you are unsure as to whether a product is truly organic (n.b. ‘natural’ doesn’t always mean organic) look out for Soil Association Certifications on products. Admittedly, some organic products do carry a heavier price tag although this isn’t always the case. Use your best judgement and buy organic when you feel you can, every little bit helps in increasing organic demand.


I hope you’ve found this article helpful. If everyone works together we can make a real difference.