As you may be aware, bee populations across the world have been in freefall over the last couple of years. The West Coast of the US has lost 70% of its bees, the East Coast 60%. British bees succumbed a little later, and last year 1 in 3 bees vanished.
The disappearances are known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and it is a mysterious phenomenon – bees just disappear, sometimes overnight, leaving the queen bee and the larvae alone. The worker bees are gone, and nobody is sure where they go or why.
Bee-keepers are scratching their heads. As yet, there is no single compelling explanation, but no shortage of competing theories. Climate change is one, or that the wet summers of 07 and o8 restricted bees’ foraging seasons. One study suggests that mobile phone signals interfere with their navigational instincts, while others suggest mites or disease. Accusing fingers have also been pointed at power lines, monoculture, GM crops, or pesticides, and Germany has banned a series of pesticides just in case.
Either way, the consequences of complete bee disappearance are severe, as they play a vital role in pollination. Many different crops rely on pollination by bees, and various food crops may fail, leading to scarcities, or even the disappearance of certain products.
In response to this crisis, a group of UK beekeepers started a lobbying group and started agitating for some government attention around this time last year. They were rewarded yesterday with £8 million in research grants. To put that in perspective, bee disappearances in the UK have so far cost the economy an estimated £50 million.
While the scientists do the research, there are things we can do in our back gardens to try and help our struggling bee populations. You could get beehives of your own if you wanted to go the whole way. Otherwise, make a smaller home for bees by leaving some wild places in your garden.
You can make a bee hotel with a bundle of canes, or stack pallets and fill them with garden scraps. Lou helped make an insect high-rise on the weekend at our permaculture course. If you’re lazy, you can buy pre-made bundles of neat and orderly insect habitats at the garden centre.
In the garden itself, let the dandelions grow, and nettles if they’re in a place where you won’t bump into them. Refrain from spraying apple trees with pesticides unless you really have to. Plant flowers that bees like. Some popular plants include snapdragons, sages, sweet peas, heather, honeysuckle, sunflowers, forget-me-not, or lavender. There are loads more – see this list from the Royal Horticultural Society.
Grow flowers in sunny but sheltered spots – bees will visit those more often than shady or windy spots, and plant big clumps of things so they’re easy to spot.
- An estimated 44,000 people in the UK keep bees.
- Fortnum and Mason, the queen of delicatessens, sells honey from beehives on the roof of its London store.
- In the US, where bees are crucial to cash crops like almonds or oranges, bees contribute an estimated £8 billion to the economy in pollination services.
- The leading honey-producing country is Argentina, who produce 75,000 tonnes a year.
- It is a myth that bumblebee flight cannot be explained by science. Bumblebee wings beat 200 times a second and function in a similar way to “reverse-pitch semirotary helicopter blades”.