Have bees affected our lives?
On a very simplistic level, most of us know that bees provide us with fruit, honey and in the case of bumblebees, the sound of summer, with their buzzing as they busily brighten our blooms. We have formed an unequal partnership with bees for many 100s years. Typically it has, in the main, been a one way partnership. “What’s in it for us? What can we get out of them. What good are they?” Unlike many insect pollinator, bees, in particular honeybees, need no introduction. We soon realised that bees have something to offer us and we exploited them for their honey, (sweetener, medicine, royal jelly, mead), wax products, propolis, and more latterly, pollination services. Now on an industrial scale. How else have bees affected our lives? I would like to introduce a fascinating new book, The Business of Bees. by Prof. Jill Atkins. This book made me sit up and think. It highlighted many aspects of human life and how, in may cases, we have been influenced and become dependent upon bees in ways I did not realise.
Bees have affected our social culture
Although its easy to believe that the modern coffee shops chains are a recent introduction, they are not. Coffeehouses, were largely a centre for social interaction where people could meet, read, write, entertain one another, exchange ideas and act as an informal hub where professionals could meet with workers. At one time, coffee houses ruled in Britain and in 1650, according to Samuel Pepys’ diary, the Grand Cafe was the first and opened in Oxford where I have partaken in drinking coffee myself. You know that bees pollinate coffee right?
A modern equivalent today could be burger chains, where people meet up, chat and eat. Millions of people visit them and enjoy beef burgers. In many parts of the world, beef cattle are fed upon protein/mineral rich alfalfa, a legume which is pollinated by a Solitary bee, a leafcutter Megachile rotundata. Originally from Europe it has been introduced to other parts of the world because of its efficiency in pollinating alfalfa. Indeed some regions called it the alfalfa bee and according to researchers, it is the world’s most intensively managed solitary bee. You like lashings of tomato sauce, onions and a spot of mustard, with a few chips, which may have been cooked in rape seed oil. Then a drink of coffee with milk, or a strawberry milkshake and all whilst wearing your new demin jeans and cotton tee shirt. Italics-Bee pollinated. Probably the dairy cows which supplied the milk, were also fed upon alfalfa.
Bees affect our diets.
Besides being boring, a diet consisting mainly of starchy wheat, corn, potatoes and rice would be incredibly dull and would pose serious risks to human health and nutrition. Some more questions. Do you buy expensive perfumes for yourself, for others? Do you eat an apple a day to keep the doctor away? Do you like vanilla, strawberry, or raspberry ice cream? What about ground almonds and marzipan? What about brazil nuts or cashews? Do you enjoy watermelon? Do you drink cranberry juice? Most fruits are pollinated mainly by bees.
Bees have influenced our language
A hive of activity, as busy as a bee, as sweet as honey, when you shoot an arrow of truth, dip its point in honey, she’s a queen bee, bee in her bonnet, the birds and the bees, bee’s knees and so one.
Bees affect our pensions. Stocks and Shares. What have bees to do with these?
Then there is personal finance. What about your stocks and shares? Do you have an occupational pension? Do have an insurance policy or an ISA invested in the stock market? Why am I asking you these questions – none of your business, you may think? But what if your future income, or retirement pension was to some extent dependent on the continuing health of bee populations? What if your investments and your future wealth would be significantly reduced were bees to vanish? Fantasy? No, not at all….. they would be and they are at risk right now.
Bees affect our jobs. Behind the scenes
The products that bees provide is the backbone of huge commercial enterprises. All investment portfolios are invested across the stock market and the stock market includes company shares from food retailers, food production, food manufacturing, food transport, the manufacture and servicing of transport, packaging manufacturers, warehousing, builders, insurance sectors, as well as the agricultural sector, the agrochemical sector and the luxury goods sector. All of these industrial groupings are affected by the decline in bee populations. No bees, no pollination, no crops, no food, no cash flows for food producers, no supplies for food retailers, no food, no business. A simple but deadly outcome not just for bees but for the human race.
Over the years there has developed a global trade in different bee species and the mass trade in hives, transported in some cases many thousands of miles on HGV vehicles, to pollinate certain crops as grown on large-scale farms and industrial agricultural producers. Effectively, Bees For Rent. Hundreds of thousands of honeybee hives located on farmland growing just one crop, known as mono culture. Again many people will be employed in the manufacturing, supplying hives, vehicles, storage facilities, providing fuel, etc. Similarly international trade has now developed in the supply of bumblebees to pollinate cash crops such as tomatoes.
Although as Prof. Dave Goulson states in his excellent award winning book, A Sting in the Tale, we introduced bumblebees into New Zealand in the latter part of the 19th century, to help pollinate red clover, used to feed livestock. There were no effective native pollinators to pollinate it! This modern bee trade may well be responsible for the introduction into other countries of bumblebee pests and diseases, the Trojan Hives. and Nosema species in Honeybees. What a thoughtful way to payback our bees! Treated like this, bees are now more of a cash commodity for us to exploit whereas their original use was more simply as natural providers of honey.
The Business of Bees
Bees have affected many more aspects of our lives, e.g. monks and monasteries, as found in another first class and very interesting book, The Business of Bees. along with aspects of bees I had never really envisaged.
We all know that bees spend their days visiting flowers, collecting nectar and in so doing pollinate the flowers. Without pollination, plants and flower species cannot produce fruit and cannot reproduce. Bees are the willing friends of plants and bees work tirelessly to pollinate hundreds of thousands of flowers. Of course, there are many other pollinators, many insects which pollinate, as well as other creatures such as bats, hummingbirds and even midges which are responsible for pollinating chocolate!
Most people are aware that there are concerns about bee populations and that bees are dying. However, in my experience, most people are not aware of the massive and global scale of bee loss or of the impact be decline is having at so many levels.
There are a wide array of causes for global bee decline including loss of habitat, loss of forage, global warming and climate change, increases in natural predators, parasites and bee diseases as well as the international usage of agricultural pesticides. You may have heard of neonicotinoids? Neonics for short? There are great concerns worldwide that the use of these on and in crops may be killing bees and other wildlife. Basically, bees are under threat on so many levels.
Recent statistics show that from a total of 1,101 species, almost 15% of bee species across Europe are threatened or near-threatened with extinction. In the US, the loss of bee colonies during the Winter of 2008 was almost 29%. Losses in 2012 were 30.6% and the latest figures indicate a 42.1% annual loss in US bee colonies. Across Europe, declining bee populations have also been noted for several decades.
The financial implications of bee loss are immense. If bees disappear entirely it would cost an estimated $90 billion per year in the US alone to pollinate by hand. The global economic value of pollination was estimated at US$217 billion in 2008 . A current estimate for the financial impact of bee decline in the US is $15 billion. These figures cannot be taken as anywhere near exact but they indicate the immensity of the problem.
What can we do? Plant and ask questions!
So what can we do on a personal level? We can purchase non neonicotinoid flowers. Even if the label states Bee Friendly or Pollinator Friendly, still ask the supplier if they are contain neonicotinoids. If they don’t know, don’t buy! Buy bee friendly organic plants or plant organic seeds/bulbs and do all the things bee lovers do. We can raise awareness, involve children in bee related activities and if you are a member of an organisation, allotment society, gardening club, etc, find speakers who can come and give a presentation/talk to your group.organisation
At a broader level, one thing we can do which takes very little time and effort is ask questions of our pension fund. As a client of a pension fund each of us has the right to ask questions about the way their pension is invested. Does our pension fund invest in a responsible way? Does the fund take into account factors such as bee decline in order to protect our future assets? Does our pension fund talk to companies it holds shares in, such as Tesco or Sainsburys, about whether or not they are taking steps to stop bee decline? Does your pension fund ask these companies whether they are checking their suppliers are ensuring they protect bees and use sustainable farming practices? If we all act and write to our pension fund, they have to take notice. Pension funds have to take into account their clients’ wishes and if a large number of clients start to ask about bees and what the fund is doing to protect them then the fund will start asking companies questions and pressurising them to protect bees. Just a thought – but a powerful one! Targeting large scale investors is a very effective way of getting businesses to change their behaviour.
Bees can live without us but we can’t live without them. Bees could survive without humans but humans could not survive without bees. Our future is intricately linked to the future of bee species and we all need to act now to save both them and ourselves.
I receive many invites for products and services provided. Thankfully I have not received one for the products or services provided by bees!
Article written by George Pilkington, Nurturing Nature and Prof. Jill Atkins
Co-editors: Jill Atkins and Barry Atkins: The Business of Bees: An Integrated Approach to Bee Decline and Corporate Responsibility