Across the world, honeybee populations are decreasing at an alarming rate, leading to concerns that bees could disappear altogether. If this happens, the effects would be decidedly grim as one third of human food supplies depend on pollination by bees.
Although the exact causes of dwindling bee numbers are as yet unclear, there is strong evidence to suggest that a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids are partly to blame. These chemicals block pathways in insects’ central nervous systems. Bees are particularly vulnerable, firstly because their capacity to detoxify chemicals is much lower than other insects, and secondly because they have a higher number of neurological receptors.
Honeybees operate as a colony rather than as individuals. It seems that lots of small doses of neonicotinoids over time combine to affect the ability of individual bees to work and communicate effectively as part of the colony. When many bees in a colony are behaving sub-optimally, this can lead to the devastating outcomes that have been seem in the last few years.
Although the evidence against neonicotinoids is strong enough that countries like France and Germany have banned or suspended their use, the UK has not yet followed suit. The Soil Association wants the Government to take action to reduce the use of neonicotinoids.
In addition to the impact of neonicotinoids, bee populations are also adversely affected by intensive agricultural practices generally. This is largely because these practices either destroy or reduce many of the characteristics which are important to ideal bee habitats.
Each individual species of bee needs compatible flowering plant species and nesting sites that are within flight distance of each other. In addition, the flowering seasons of the plants need to match the feeding seasons of the bees so there must be a range of preferred flowers in bloom, and within reach, from Spring until Autumn.
Not all species of bees live in hives. Some species nest in holes in wood or make tunnels in the ground and generally find ideal conditions in wilder or more neglected areas of farms.
Organic farming focuses on natural ecosystems, native species and a lack of pesticides. This means that organic farms are a haven for many species of bee, providing wild spaces such as hedgerows between fields, and supporting a delicate balance of plants and insects that are mutually dependent on each other. In particular both red and white clovers are found in abundance on organic farms, each of which draws particular species of bee.
Because organic farming in its essence supports both biodiversity and bees, it is likely to play an important part in a solution to the problem of diminishing bee populations.
For further information on bees and organic farming see: www.soilassociation/bees.aspx
Emma Hockridge | Soil Association