For the love of bees

Credit: Mark Hayward

We all love bees and it appears none more so than the British. The insects have been identified as the number one endangered species that Britons would save. Indeed, opinion polls suggest that many see it as more pressing than climate change.  A third of what we eat relies on these insects for pollination, yet numbers have almost halved in the past 25 years. Bees have become the emblem for what’s going wrong in the countryside.

When it comes to the chief culprit for the bee’s decline, scientific evidence is clear: pesticides. A major study by the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides found that neonicotinoids (neonics) pose a serious risk to bees.  Neonics are nerve poisons and the effects of exposure range from instant and lethal to chronic.  It concluded that pesticide use causes ‘significant damage’ to a wide range of wildlife like butterflies, birds and earthworms and is a ‘key factor’ in the decline of bees.  Today, if you walk on almost any arable farm in Britain, it’s likely much of the vegetation you see is tainted by a cocktail of neonicotinoids toxic to insects.

The loss of wild bees has led to the industrial rearing of bees to pollinate crops. As I saw in California, where wild bees have all but gone, Central Valley’s vast almond orchards are now pollinated by some 40 billion industrially reared bees, drafted into the state every year on the back of 3,000 trucks.  Here in the Sunshine State, where 4 out of every 5 almonds are produced globally, hives are placed among the crops for six weeks; the bees do their thing before being hastily scooped up and taken off to the next eco-stricken state.  The beekeepers live with the constant anxiety that their little charges will be poisoned by clouds of pesticides drifting towards the hives from neighbouring fields.

You couldn’t make it up! It seems that humankind is incapable of recognising the benefits of natural biodiversity and prefers instead to find solutions to problems that we have created.  It would be humorous if it were not so serious. Bees are natural pollinators for much of the food on which we all depend.

However, it is not all doom and gloom; recently Representatives in a key European Parliament Committee voted in favour of permanently banning three so-called neonics: Bayer’s imidacloprid and clothianidin and Syngenta’s thiamethoxam. The regulation will now go for adoption by the Commission in the coming weeks and become applicable by the end of the year.  In further good news this week the General Court of the European Union dismissed in their entirety actions brought by Bayer and Syngenta that had challenged the ban imposed by the EU in 2013 on these neonicotinoids because of the risks those substances pose to bees.

There are also wonderful examples of conservation and welfare-minded farmers committed to bringing biodiversity back to their lands.  One such example is Dingley Dell, winner of Compassion in World Farming’s ‘Good Pig Award’ for higher welfare pig-keeping, where two Suffolk farming brothers, Mark and Paul Hayward, supported by Martin Blackwell of Direct Meats, are aiming to feed a million bumblebees this year to help reverse the decline in these vital pollinators.

Credit: Mark Hayward

I’ve visited Dingley Dell, where the Hayward’s have sown 33 hectares (that’s the equivalent of 83 football pitches) of nectar-rich plants around their farm.  The wild flower mixes, which include Phacelia, Clover and Mallow are planted in blocks between the rows of pig arcs and in the fields. A trial last year showed up to 12 bumblebees could be seen feeding in each square metre of the wild flowers so the brothers are confident they can reach their “One million bees” target. Mark and Paul are calling on more farmers to follow their example.

The Million Bees Project has also been warmly welcomed by bee expert, Professor Dave Goulson from the University of Sussex, who told me: “The fates of humankind and that of bees are inextricably linked, for we depend upon them for our food supply. The Dingley Dell project which combines commercial farming with providing huge areas of flowers for wild bees is hugely inspiring, and gives me hope for all our futures”.

With our ever-growing population, we have never been so reliant on the humble bumble bee.  Their demise symbolises the high stakes involved in our reckless fixation on maximising yields from a single crop doused in chemicals, at the expense of all other life on the land.   As you pause to think of our biodiversity on World Bee Day and for the love of all bees, please also think of what you will do to help.

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