Bee decline set to continue warns UN

Posted: 11 March 2011

Scientists are warning that without profound changes to the way human-beings manage the planet, declines in bees and other pollinators needed to feed a growing global population are likely to continue. .

Bee on flower
We rely on bees for pollinating our food crops. Photo
© TVE

New kinds of virulent fungal pathogens—which can be deadly to bees and other key pollinating insects—are now being detected world-wide, migrating from one region to another as a result of shipments linked to globalization and rapidly growing international trade

Meanwhile an estimated 20,000 flowering plant species, upon which many bee species depend for food, could be lost over the coming decades unless conservation efforts are stepped up

Increasing use of chemicals in agriculture, including ‘systemic insecticides’ and those used to coat seeds, is being found to be damaging or toxic to bees. Some can, in combination, be even more potent to pollinators, a phenomenon known as the ‘cocktail effect’

Climate change, left unaddressed, may aggravate the situation, in various ways including by changing the flowering times of plants and shifting rainfall patterns. This may in turn affect the quality and quantity of nectar supplies.

Multiple factors

These are among the findings of a new report published this week by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which has brought together and analyzed the latest science on collapsing bee colonies.

The study, entitled Global Bee Colony Disorders and other Threats to Insect Pollinators, underlines that multiple factors are at work linked with the way humans are rapidly changing the conditions and the ground rules that support life on Earth. It shows humans’ large dependency on ecosystem services even for such vital sectors as food production.

It indicates that bees are early warning indicators of wider impacts on animal and plant life and that measures to boost pollinators could not only improve food security but the fate of many other economically and environmentally-important plants and animals.

The authors of the report call for farmers and landowners to be offered incentives to restore pollinator-friendly habitats, including key flowering plants including next to crop-producing fields.

bee on honeycombeBee on honeycomb. Credit UNEP

More care needs to be taken in the choice, timing and application of insecticides and other chemicals. While managed hives can be moved out of harm’s way, “wild populations (of pollinators) are completely vulnerable”, says the report.

Achim Steiner,  UNEP Executive Director, said: “The way humanity manages or mismanages its nature-based assets, including pollinators, will in part define our collective future in the 21st century. The fact is that of the 100 crop species that provide 90 per cent of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by bees”.

“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”.

Green economy

UNEP points out that next year -- 20 years after the Rio Earth Summit -- nations will meet again to try and scale-up the transition to a low carbon, resource-efficient Green Economy. It says part of that transition should include investing and re-investing in the world’s nature-based services generated by forests and freshwaters to flower meadows and coral reefs.

“Rio+20 is an opportunity to move beyond narrow definitions of wealth and to bring the often invisible, multi-trillion dollar services of nature—including pollination from insects such as bees— into national and global accounts,” said Mr Steiner.

Regional picture

Declines in managed bee colonies date back to the mid 1960s in Europe but have accelerated since 1998, especially in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom.

In North America, losses of honey bee colonies since 2004 have left the continent with fewer managed pollinators than at any time in the past 50 years.

Chinese bee keepers, who manage both western and eastern species of honey bees, have recently “faced several inexplicable and complex symptoms of colony losses in both species”.

A quarter of beekeepers in Japan “have recently been confronted with sudden losses of their bee colonies”.

In Africa, beekeepers along the Egyptian Nile have been reporting signs of ‘colony collapse disorder’ although to date there are no other confirmed reports from the rest of the continent.

Habitat degradation, including the loss of flowering plant species that provide food for bees, is among the key factors behind the decline of wild-living pollinators. n Anglo-Dutch study has found that since the 1980s, there has been a 70 per cent drop in key wild flowers among, for example, the mint, pea and perennial herb families. Parasites and Pests, such as the well known Varroa mite which feeds on bee fluids, are also a factor.

 The full report, Global Bee Colony Disorders and other Threats to Insect Pollinators, can be downloaded here