More than only honey

An image of bees.

Last summer my family bought two beehives in Lebanon because we wanted to produce our own honey (not commercially but for our own usage). We and my uncle cared for and fostered the bees; we had to ensure that there was always enough food and water available and had to take preventative care against parasites that potentially harm the bees. And finally, after 6 months of hard work, we were able to harvest our first own honey… it was delicious.

Nevertheless one of the beehives died mysteriously afterwards, as well as the new one that we bought as a replacement. This mysterious death of whole bee colonies is nothing special but has become a norm worldwide. Since WWII there has been almost a constant decrease in the number of bee colonies. This year there has been a 50% decrease of bee colonies in Germany whereas the normal and natural decrease is only 10%. This mass-death of bees is something that we should not accept easily; it can and will have a great economic impact globally.

Why are bees so important?

I bet that few people know that the bee is the third most important livestock (after cows and pigs). Its economic performance accounts for 2 billion Euros yearly. Bees might be very small but their ecological influence is huge. They pollinate 80% of all plants (the rest 20% is pollinated by bumblebees, flies, butterflies and other insects) and they, therefore, decide the survival of trees, grasses, flowers and shrubs. From the 100 plant species which make up over 90% of human nutrition, 71 are pollinated by bees. Bee-products are among others apples, strawberries, almonds and tomatoes. Fruit and vegetables that have been pollinated by bees also tend to have a higher quality in comparison to self-pollinated plants and even more than artificially pollinated ones. The commercial value of bee-pollinated strawberries is 54% more than self-pollinated plants; the fruit are heavier, have fewer deformities, have a richer taste and colour, and therefore reach higher ‘handelsklassen’. Some crop plants like cocoa, vanilla and passion fruit depend 100% on bee pollination - no bees means none of these products. Albert Einstein is often quoted as having said that the extinction of the bee means that humankind only has 4 years left to live until it has used up all its reserves and dies.

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man” – Albert Einstein

What causes bee disappearance?

Most, of the causes behind the death of bees, are human-made, but there is usually not one single cause. Rather, many factors act simultaneously on the animals and lead to increased stress and susceptibility to diseases and other external factors like weather change. The main causes are:

1. Insecticides: these are used to kill other insects like mosquitos, however, they also kill bees

2. Monoculture in agriculture: monoculture (especially of corn and cotton) without hedges, flowering plants and herbs mean that there is not sufficient food for bees available. Both the quantity and quality of available food are restricted and the bees suffer from malnutrition making them weaker and less productive. Often the honey-yield in cities is higher than in the countryside because of this reason.

3. The “Cocktail effect”: poisonous substances (from pesticides, insecticides, fertilisers and herbicides) found in the soil, water and air together have very considerable effects on bees and can cause the direct death of bees, mutations, increased stress etc.

4. The varroa mite: this is a 1-2 mm mite imported from Asia in the 1960s that kills the European and American honey bee (the Asian honey been is mostly not harmed).

5. Climate change: higher temperatures cause earlier flowering which in turn causes confusion and stress for the bee colonies. Warm winters, as well as long dry periods, cause additional stress for the animals.

6. Overbreeding: in the past bees have been bred to produce a lot of honey and to be easily kept. These bees, however, have weaker immune systems and are therefore not very resilient to environmental and climate changes and are more susceptible to stress.

The increased stress, weakness and confusion of a bee does not only influence the individual but the whole colony. When bees no longer find their way to the hive or lack the energy to collect enough nectar the young bees and the queen are not fed and this can lead to their death. This is phenomena is called “colony collapse disorder”.

What can we do?

If we want to stop bee-death we have to act in many ways:

• Politics: politicians have to put in place strict regulations on the use of chemicals and insecticides in agriculture. They also should promote multilateral usage of land instead of monoculture and support ecological/green farming. They should also set greater importance towards green spaces, especially in cities.

• Agriculture: Individual farmers can already make a big change. They should renounce fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and insecticides which do not only harm bees but also have many other environmental effects. They should also take care when cutting meadows. Cutting one hectare of the flowering meadow can kill up to 10,000 bees. Cutting should, therefore, be restricted to two times per year and not during bee-flying-times when possible.

• Individuals: Every individual can help the survival of bees if he/she plants flowers and herbs in his/her environment, as these serve as a food resource for the animals. Here it is important that wild plants are planted instead of hybrid-bred plants as these produce almost no nectar. People can also buy their own bee-hives that they can keep in their gardens or even on balconies.