“If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live”.
This quote is often attributed to Albert Einstein, although whether or not he ever said it is debatable at best. What is certain is that bees are both essential and in danger, and they need help from all of us.
There are upwards of 16,000 species of bee worldwide, with multiple species found on every continent except Antarctica. In the UK alone there are around 260 species, many of which most of us have almost certainly never heard of: yellow-faced bees, scissor bees, blood bees, sweat bees...
With that many bees buzzing around, it’s hard to bee-lieve (sorry) that they could be at any kind of risk, but in fact numbers are declining everywhere. The UK has lost at least 13 species of bee to extinction and 35 more are at immediate risk, and many of the species which aren’t endangered are declining in number.
The reasons for the rapid disappearance of so many bees are varied – a combination of habitat loss, the effects of pesticides, competition from invasive species, parasites and illnesses have all seen bee numbers steadily declining. And this matter, not just because biodiversity is important, but on the very human level that so much of the food we eat relies on the pollination powers of bees.
It is estimated that bees pollinate around 400 different agricultural plants around the world, 70 in the UK, and without the bees’ busy, buzzy efforts growing food becomes a lot harder. While it is possible for humans to pollinate plants without bees, we’re much less efficient at it: it’s estimated that it would cost £1.8 billion every year to pollinate UK crops manually.
Of course, it’s not just bees…
Other insects work equally hard to pollinate our food and flowers (and of course feed themselves in the process) – butterflies, moths, hoverflies and even mosquitoes feed on flowers and transfer pollen from plant to plant, pollinating in the process. Luckily, most of the things that support and encourage bees are also good for these other pollinators.
So, what can I do?
Between May and the end of July, honeybees swarm to find a new nest. The process is triggered when a new queen bee grows up and the old queen takes some of the bees to find a new place to build a hive: they will usually fly around for a while before settling somewhere to wait until the scout bees find a new location. Swarms involve thousands of bees and being in the middle of one is a truly memorable experience (and yes, I speak from personal experience there!).
If you find a bee swarm in your garden, the British Beekeepers Association website can help you find someone to come and collect the bees and take them to a nice new home. While you’re waiting, shut your doors and windows, keep children and pets inside, and, needless to say, don’t use pesticides against them – there are few enough bees left already!
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