By Eurico Borges
“If the bee disappears from the surface of the Earth, man will have no more than four years left to live” is an Einstein quote often used to describe the importance of bees. While he did not say it, the sentiment behind it is shockingly accurate.
It is not easy to observe bees and imagine that all human existence depends on that simple being. When talking about bees, we are often referring to honeybees.
However, scientists believe the number of species to be over 20,000. Currently, only about 16,000 of them are registered, and unlike public perception, solitary bees make up 75% of all species.
They do not produce honey, are significantly smaller, and female specimens make nests instead of hives for their larvae. Despite being called solitary, most of their nests are discovered with one another, and some of them even make them collectively. Solitary bees cooperate for defense reasons, but each female only builds the conditions for her larva, in a means to avoid mixing them.
On the other hand, honeybees have a more collaborative system in their hives. They can be separated into three main categories: drones, usually males; workers, mostly females; and the queen (female).
Drones are primarily used for reproduction and originate from unfertilised eggs; Workers come from fertilised eggs and do every other task; while the queen is created by feeding only with “royal jelly” and is the biggest in the hive, being responsible for laying eggs and mating with drones.
Queen bees are exceptional, mating with up to 70 partners a day and laying up to 1500 eggs in the same time interval for up to three weeks, while always producing several pheromones that control workers’ behaviour to keep a functional hive.
Adult bees have an estimated flight life of 800km. In the summer they travel that distance in about 20 days, while during the other seasons bees travel a lot less, taking up to 4 months to travel the 800km limit and living six times longer.
They have high pollinating efficiency and unique specialty, feeding exclusively on nectar and pollen and constituting 73% of plant pollination. This is mainly due to its scope of action, as the average working radius of an adult colonial bee is 1.5km.
Considering that the median hive has about 60,000 individuals and 2/3 of them collect pollen daily, the area covered by them is a colossal 700 ha, which means around 35 million flowers are visited per day.
In addition, bees are “faithful” to the plant: while the plant keeps providing them with good nectar, pollen, or oils, the bee will continue to visit and notify her colleagues to visit the factory using dances that convey its distance and direction.
Bees determine the reproduction of plants and, consequently, which will dominate the landscape. The success of these species affects other animals, such as birds and mammals, which feed and disperse seeds. As a result, a large network is formed in which bees are central elements.
If a bee is missing, the plants suffer, reproductive success decreases, and vegetation will change. This affects the entire microclimate in the region by influencing the evaporation regime and the rainfall pattern. On a large scale, it reduces the capacity to store carbon, aggravating the climate crisis.
As we depend on plants for food, the consequences are even more dramatic. 90% of the main crops are visited by bees, and almost 50% of them have an essential or large dependency on pollinators. Pollinated flowers have more durability and nutritional value, as well as increased production.
Despite being the most benefited, agribusiness is also primarily responsible for the mortality of bees. Agricultural expansion destroys forests, which are essential for the conservation of bees, and pesticides, mainly insecticides, directly affect their life cycle.
Climate change is another factor responsible for the reducing number of bees. Irregular rain showers affect the flowering of the plants, reducing bee’s feed. Due to malnourishment bees cannot reproduce normally. They do not have adequate time to produce bees with 4 months life to last the winter, only having summer bees.
New diseases, such as a varroa (a parasitic mite from Java) that has spread worldwide and creates havoc in beehives, severely limit the bee population as well. While only colonial bees are affected by this, they are also the biggest pollinators in the bee species.
Variety is very important in a bee’s diet, and the desire to grow even more products with high economic performance has led to the creation of monoculture expansion, where the only pollen and nectar available are those from the plant in production.
Finally, European and Asian colonial bees have another threat: the Asian wasp. It is an extremely aggressive predator that arrived in 2004 via France. Since then, it has spread all over Europe and is highly damaging to beehives due to favourable climate and very few predators.
Bees have no defense mechanism against such predators, but beekeepers are developing mechanisms to protect their hives and the authorities are managing species control strategies to contain its uncontrollable spread.
There are numerous ways to protect the species, and it is up to us to avoid its extinction, which would completely devastate the food industry, causing famine worldwide, and aggravate the climate change crisis.
Governments need to act by imposing regulatory standards for pesticides, promoting integrated pest management, regulating the movement of pollinators managed between countries, and providing numerous incentives to encourage farmers to use nature-friendly services like pollination instead of agrochemicals.
We as the people must put pressure on the state to act fast to safeguard the species conservation before it is too late. Supporting diversified agricultural systems by buying from organic farmers that engage in environmentally friendly farming is the best way to ensure that we are taking care of their ecosystems.
Bees are hugely important to the ecosystem and to human health. They are responsible for a third of the food on our plate. It is vital that we protect and care for them. We need to act now or we will risk our beloved buzzers becoming extinct. Let’s be the change we want to see.
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