Pressure on wildlife and their habitat has intensified as the global human population has increased. Conservationists believe that humans are obliged to safeguard the diverse range of species on the planet due to the negative effects we have had on them; however, this is not a simple task. Where do we start and how much effort should we place on each species? Following a talk by Natalie Cristo, an Undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, the importance of, and services provided by, honey bees became overwhelmingly apparent.
It is important to conserve species that are endemic, endangered and provide ecosystem services (discussed by Groot, et al., 2002). It is often the services or usefulness of a species that gains it the most attention. The usefulness of bees to humans should really be thought of as dependence, and not be so readily overlooked as their numbers are decreasing and without bees we would lose 1/3 of the food produced in the UK.
It is hard to imagine a world without bees or pollinators, because they are vital for the fertilisation of many food crops. Despite this importance they have been declining for decades due to habitat loss and fragmentation, flower decline, pesticide use and disease. More than 1 in 10 honeybees is at risk of extinction according to the IUCN Red List for Bees. These factors lower the vitality and genetic diversity of bees meaning that they are even less resistant to environmental stressors.
In China, people now have to pollinate crops and fruits using hand pollination because bee numbers are so low. In a world with such a vastly growing population, we are so heavily reliant on insect pollinated crops that we are forced to go to such extents as these. Visiting the Population Institute website gives you an idea of how many people our earth is trying to feed and this should highlight the importance of pollinators.
Chinese hand pollination, carried out because of the lack of insect pollinators.
One of the main problems bees face is the overuse of pesticides, such as neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are the world’s most widely used insecticides and are thought to be the main driver of the huge losses in the number of queen bees although they have now been banned by the EU. More countries banning these chemicals and switching to alternative methods of pest removal would mean that we see a less rapid decline in bee populations. It seems counter intuitive and counterproductive to spray the crops to increase yield if that stops our crops being pollinated altogether.
We need to take responsibility for the damage we are doing to local biodiversity, crops and to the humble honey bee and take action in order to conserve them, especially considering human population growth. What would the world be without the bees?
By Hannah Stevens