My parents moved house last week. They weren’t, though, the only inhabitants of their property to relocate. During their final few days of packing, a swarm of bees took up residence in my sister’s old tree house. Unfortunately for the bees, there was no way that they could safely establish a hive there, so my mother called Gerald the Bee Man, who put her in touch with a couple of local beekeepers. They lulled the bees into submission with smoke, and then coaxed them into a new hive over the course of two days. The queen and her underlings will spend the rest of their lives pollinating fruit trees, far away from the temptations of suburban tree houses.
Deciding to remove, rather than exterminate, errant bee colonies has implications beyond the ethics of killing animals and insects. Bees exist not only to make a cheerful buzzing in our gardens and to provide us with honey. Einstein remarked, famously: ‘if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, man would have only four years to live.’ Although this is something of an exaggeration, I can understand his terror at the thought of the disappearance of bees, both culturally and ecologically.
Bees are invoked, frequently, as metaphors for our societies – the way we live, the way we organise ourselves – and for how we should be. One of the most striking features of researching the Victorian period is the number of references to bees and beehives. During a debate on a new Bees Regulation Bill in the Cape Colony’s House of Assembly in July 1894, one MP objected to the legislation which, he believed, would limit beekeeping in the Cape on the grounds that bees provided the poor with an example of hard work and co-operation:
Yesterday they were treated to various dissertations on the abject misery of the poor white population, and yet they were now asked to consent to the second reading of a measure which would deprive the poor white population of the country of one of the most useful object lessons they could possibly be afforded them.
Describing colonial society as a beehive, Henry de Smidt, the Director of the Census in the Cape, argued for the inclusion of ‘idle’ children in the Census because they formed ‘an integral portion of the human hive, drones though they might be.’
Both men echoed Isaac Watts’s tremendously popular poem ‘Against Idleness and Mischief’:
How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
From every opening Flower!
How skilfully she builds her Cell!
How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet Food she makes.
In Works of Labour or of Skill
I would be busy too:
For Satan finds some Mischief still
For idle Hands to do.
In Books, or Work, or healthful Play
Let my first Years be past,
That I may give for every Day
Some good Account at last.
For the Victorians, the appeal of the beehive lay in its tightly organised and maintained social structure, its strict hierarchies, and its efficient productivity. It was at once a metaphor for a harmonious society and a well-run factory.
Bees are also useful for describing our often fraught relationship with nature: I think of the periodic, National Enquirer-esque hysteria around killer African bees invading the United States. I wonder if the horror of Roald Dahl’s story ‘Royal Jelly,’ where a beekeeper accidentally turns both himself and his baby daughter into bees, was reflective of wider anxieties about the implications of human tampering with nature during the early 1980s.
The decline of bees says as much about us, as it does about bees. But other than providing a series of handy, mutable metaphors, bees and, indeed, other pollinators both wild and farmed, are absolutely essential to our food chain. Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum explain:
honeybees are vital for the pollination of around 90 crops worldwide. In addition to almonds, most fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds are dependent on honeybees. Crops that are used as cattle and pig feed also rely on honeybee pollination, as does the cotton plant. So if all the honeybees disappeared, we would have to switch our diet to cereals and grain, and give our wardrobes a drastic makeover.
The disappearance of the world’s bees has significant implications for our food security. Ensuring that we have enough to eat is linked to health of our pollinators.
The decline in European bee populations began in the 1960s, but since the late 1990s, this has both accelerated and spread around the globe. Between 1985 and 2005, managed honeybee populations declined by 20 per cent across Europe, and 54% in England. In the United States, four of the main bumblebee populations have diminished by up to 96%. In Britain, three of the region’s 25 bumblebee species are now extinct, and half of the remainder have declined significantly, some by as much as 70% since the 1970s.
showed more than half the wild bee species were lost in the 20th century in the US. It made use of a remarkable record made of plants and pollinators at Carlinville, Illinois between 1888 and 1891 by entomologist Charles Robertson. Scientists combined that with data from 1971-72 and new data from 2009-10 to discover the changes in pollination seen over the century as widespread forest was reduced to the fragments that remain today.
They found that half of the 109 bee species recorded by Robertson had been lost and there had been a serious degradation of the pollination provided by the remaining wild insects, with their ability to pollinate specific plants falling by more than half. There was an increasing mismatch between when plants flowered and when bees were active, a finding consistent with climate change, according to the researchers.
Scientists all over the world are still trying to answer this question. Initially, the dramatic decline in bee populations from around 2005 were ascribed to a mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder – also called Marie Celeste Syndrome – where whole, apparently healthy, beehives seemed to die overnight. In 2007, a third of beehives in the US were wiped out in this manner. In the same year, ten million bees were reported to have died in just a fortnight in Taiwan. In the winter of 2007/2008, a fifth of British beehives disappeared too.
It’s unlikely that there is a single cause for CCD. A combination of factors arising from climate change, depleted habitats, decreasing biodiversity, and widespread pesticide use, have placed ever more stress on the world’s bee populations. Last year, the varroa mite was linked to the global decline in bee numbers:
Varroa destructor has spread from Asia across the entire world over the past 50 years. It arrived in the UK in 1990 and has been implicated in the halving of bee numbers since then, alongside other factors including the destruction of flowery habitats in which bees feed and the widespread use of pesticides on crops. Bees and other pollinators are vital in the production in up to a third of all the food we eat, but the role the mites played was unclear, as bacteria and fungi are also found in colonies along with the viruses.
But the mite’s arrival in Hawaii in 2007 gave scientists a unique opportunity to track its deadly spread. ‘We were able to watch the emergence of the disease for the first time ever,’ said Stephen Martin, at the University of Sheffield, who led the new research published in the journal Science. Within a year of varroa arrival, 274 of 419 colonies on Oahu island (65%) were wiped out, with the mites going on to wreak destruction across Big Island the following year.
Scientific evidence has mounted rapidly since March 2012, when two high-profile studies found that bees consuming neonicotinoids suffered an 85% loss in the number of queens their nests produced and showed a doubling in ‘disappeared’ bees who got lost while foraging. Neonicotinoids have been fiercely defended by their manufacturers, who claim there is no proof of harm in field conditions and by farming lobbies who say crop yields could fall without pesticide protection. Some neonicotinoid uses have been banned in the past in France, Italy, Slovenia and Germany, but no action has yet been taken in the UK.
The removal of the hive from my parents’ garden made me wonder to what extent CCD has affected South African bee populations. And the answer – I think – is that local bee numbers appear not to have declined as dramatically as those abroad. I’d like to qualify this statement heavily: this is the conclusion I’ve drawn after a morning’s worth of fairly thorough research. I’m not a melittologist (obviously) and I may well have missed a few vital and obvious studies.
Also since 1990 a problem has emerged caused by the movement within South Africa of colonies of the endemic Cape honeybee (Apis mellifera capensis) to regions outside its natural distribution. The interaction between these Cape honeybees and colonies of the other honeybee species in South Africa proved to be disastrous. The so-called Capensis Problem caused extensive damage in the beekeeping industry in South Africa.
Interestingly, though, South Africa’s bees seem to be more resilient to the threat posed by the varroa mite. The mite was first identified in the Western Cape in 1997, having probably entered the country in contaminated hives offloaded at Cape Town harbour. It then spread around the country, even infecting wild bee populations. But only a small minority of bee colonies have collapsed so far.
Why? Well, local bee species may have developed ways of repelling or resisting the mite. Also, South African bees, although under increasing stress, don’t have to contend with the same range of threats as do those abroad. A 2009 survey of the density of bee populations all over the world concluded that ‘Genetic diversity and colony densities were highest in South Africa and lowest in Northern Europe’. The authors of the study suggest that these differences correlate with climate – bees in more temperate regions tend to be healthier than those that are not – but also with the fact that South African bees are able to roam across far bigger wild habitats:
African subspecies disperse via long-distance migratory swarms, leave the nest in response to disturbance or disease (absconding) more readily, and have a faster generation time and smaller colonies than European honeybees. These traits promote population gene flow and high genetic diversity, boosting effective population sizes in Africa.
Agriculture, with its pesticides and low biodiversity, seems, then, to have an impact on the health of European bee populations.
We’re already beginning to feel the impact of the decline in bee populations:
The most dramatic example comes from the apple and pear orchards of south west China, where wild bees have been eradicated by excessive pesticide use and a lack of natural habitat.
In recent years, farmers have been forced to hand-pollinate their trees, carrying pots of pollen and paintbrushes with which to individually pollinate every flower, and using their children to climb up to the highest blossoms. This is clearly just possible for this high-value crop, but there are not enough humans in the world to pollinate all of our crops by hand.
Looking at the comparative good health of South African bees suggests ways in which the global bee population could be increased. Limiting the use of pesticides, increasing habitat for bees by planting wild flowers and leaving areas of uncultivated vegetation on farms, and finding ways of preventing the spread of parasites, will all assist in encouraging healthier bee colonies. All over the world, campaigns and organisations have emerged to lobby for the protection of bees, and the coolness of urban beekeeping is linked, I’m sure, to wider concerns about declining biodiversity.
A world without bees, is a world which will struggle to feed itself.
Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, A World without Bees (London: Guardian Books, 2008).
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