Bees: a sting in the tale
The United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) buzzes into the ongoing discussion of bee decline this week, with a report examining the global nature of the issue and some of the reasons behind it.
Their top-line conclusions are that it's becoming a widespread, if not quite global, phenomenon, and that there's a multiplicity of causes.
But it's perhaps not quite so commonly known that Chinese beekeepers "faced several inexplicable and complex symptoms of colony losses", as Unep puts it, or that collapses have also been seen in beehives along the banks of the Nile.
As to the causes, the report highlights more than a dozen factors that could be responsible, in varying proportions, in different parts of the world, including:
- diseases exacerbated by increased global movement of bees and of other things that may carry pathogens
- agricultural chemicals
- climatic factors
- atmospheric pollution, which reduces insects' capacity to detect smells of, for example, important plants
- loss of plant biodiversity, reducing the variety of bees' diet
A while back, writing about the stark and global crisis facing amphibians, I suggested that the only factor to hold responsible was "everything" - and that the same might be true for bees.
And this is basically the thesis that Unep is spelling out, through the scientific assessments of the Swiss, French and US experts enlisted to write its report.
A recurring theme in Unep's work at the moment is the importance of "natural capital" - the goods and services that nature provides and that humanity makes use of - and Unep chief Achim Steiner was keen to outline how bees fit into this vision when he launched the bee report in Geneva on Thursday:
"Human beings have fabricated the illusion that in the 21st Century they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature.
"Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less dependent on nature's services in a world of close to seven billion people."
And as concern slowly rises about the availability of food in the future, the UN report also floats the statistic that...
"...of some 100 crop species which provide 90% of food worldwide, 71 of these are bee-pollinated."
What to do about the problem is another matter.
Given the mixed nature of the threat - a largely unquantified mixture - it's even debatable whether there is a single solution, given that simply returning the world to an era before agricultural chemicals, atmospheric pollutants and international trade is hardly feasible.
Several governments have committed funds to research the problem; and when you consider that pollination is said to contribute $14bn (£8.7bn) to the US economy alone, you can see why the US government is one of the leaders here.
The number of healthy hives has fallen markedly in the US
One of the questions to ask is why declines have been documented in the areas noted above, while in others - South America, Australia, most of Asia and Africa - there's no visible sign.
From a practical standpoint, if you're faced with a complex problem that you don't completely understand but where there are some threats that are eminently addressable, then clearly it makes sense to deal with them while you wait for the scientific conclusions to come through.
So in a number of countries, there are now projects - supported by industry or government agri-environment schemes or both - aimed at giving bees practical support.
In the UK, farmers are encouraged to plant clover mixes and other bee-friendly plants around the edges of their fields.
Diseases such as varroatosis are a major threat
A number of European countries have banned neonicotinoid pesticides that they believe are implicated in bee decline.
And bee-keepers internationally are bombarded with information about the need to keep their hives clean against varroa mites and other pests.
None of these is likely to be a complete defence, but each is likely to give the insects something of a lift.
There's a parallel here with coral reefs, which are likewise afflicted by a complex set of threats.
So the question for authorities is what can be tackled, and what can't.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority might not have the power to stop global warming and ocean acidification.
But it can restrict shipping and tourism, limit pollution from agricultural land, attack the voracious crown of thorns starfish and encourage fish that nibble on unwanted algae.
Each of these will keep coral healthier and better able to withstand the threats that can't as yet be controlled.
As Loretta Burke of the World Resources Institute said on the publication of a major global reef assessment last month:
"There are reasons for hope. Reefs are resilient; and by reducing the local pressures, we can help buy time to find solutions to global threats that can preserve reefs for future generations."
Unep's bee prescription is along the same lines, recommending the restoration of good habitat, low-input agricultural methods, and the provision of a diverse population of pollinators.
Will it be enough? Or are we flying, slowly and inexorably, towards a world without bees?
And if we are, what will that mean for the meals on our plates?