Of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by bees. By its very nature, pollination is a cornerstone in both agriculture and the maintenance of ecosystems around the globe. When bees are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat, there is mounting concern over the decline of the bee populations, both wild and managed.
New studies are shedding light on the reasons for bees dying off in record numbers, as well as the expected consequences for our global food system and public health that appear drastic if pollinator-dependent foods begin to disappear.
Since the late 1990s, beekeepers around the world have observed the mysterious and sudden disappearance of bees, and report unusually high rates of decline in honeybee colonies.
Much of the global bee decline is taking place in the industrialised northern hemisphere due to more than a dozen factors, according to a report by the UN’s environmental agency. The factors include climate change, crop protection chemicals, air pollution, a lethal pinhead-sized parasite that only affects bee species in the northern hemisphere, mismanagement of the countryside, and the loss of flowering plants.
As global agriculture continues to boom to support an ever growing human population, so does the use of insecticides, pesticides and other crop protection chemicals. Insecticides, in particular, pose the most direct risk to pollinators because as their name suggests, they are chemicals designed to kill insects.
According to the USDA, crops like corn and soybeans, which are main staple crops used for farmed animal feed, accounted for around 80% of pesticide use in 2008. The term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) was established in 2006 to describe the phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear, eventually die and leave behind a queen. Studies from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) show a link between doses of imidacloprid, neonicotinoid and clothianidin causing some kind of biological mechanism in bees that in turn leads to CCD.
Our current food systems are incredibly resource inefficient driving water scarcity, deforestation, land degradation and have created substantial habitat and biodiversity loss from land use. Such destruction of habitat and lack of forage due to monocultures and bee-killing insecticides are particular threats for bees and wild pollinators.
It’s evident that some insecticides, at concentrations applied routinely in the current chemical-intensive agriculture system, exert clear, negative effects on the health of pollinators—both individually and at the colony level. The observed, sub-lethal, low-dose effects of insecticides on bees are various and diverse.
Since 1998, individual beekeepers in Europe have been reporting unusual weakening and mortality in colonies, particularly in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain.
— UNEP 2010
The Future of Nutrition and Disease
UK medical journal, The Lancet, released a study which provides the first global analysis of the contribution of pollination to human health through diet which specifically examines our reliance on pollinator-dependent foods for controlling chronic and malnutrition related disease.
Startlingly, pollinator declines could lead to substantial new disease burdens from both micronutrient deficiencies and chronic diseases, where inadequate intakes of nutrients such as vitamin A and folate can affect growth, vision, immune system functionality, reproduction, DNA synthesis, while increasing infectious disease mortality rates.
Additionally, the study advised that “insufficient intakes of the key foods affected by pollinator species—fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds—are each risk factors for non-communicable diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, oesophageal cancer, and lung cancer.”
If the world is to see a complete death of the animal pollinators, upwards of 71 million people in low-income countries could become newly deficient in vitamin A and folate deficiency estimates were at 173 million. For people consuming already below the average requirements for vitamin A and folate, a further 2.2 billion and 1.23 billion people respectively would see further deficiency decline, placing increasing pressure on an already over burdened global health care system.
The average global fruit supplies could decline by 22.9%, vegetables by 16.3%, and nuts and seeds by 22.1% under full pollinator service loss. Global health care systems will buckle under pressure of increased nutrient deficiencies and chronic disease increases from a lack of available fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
The study listed regions most vulnerable to increased non-communicable disease burden who are eastern Europe, south and southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.
Bees and the Global Food System
Most crops are grown for their fruits and require pollination by insects. Pollination is the transfer of pollen from the male parts of a flower to the female parts of a flower of the same species, which results in fertilisation of plant ovaries and the production of seeds. By far, the primary insect pollinators are bees and the European honeybee is the most well known and widely managed pollinators. But there are also hundreds of other species of bees that contribute some level of pollination services to crops and are integral in natural plant communities.
A female in a solitary bee species produces offspring once a year in her own nest, where as other species nest communally or have elaborate social structures with division of labor within the colony. These kinds of bees produce multiple generations each year and need pollen and nectar as food resources across most of the growing season to produce strong colonies.
Pollinators such as bees, birds and bats affect 35% of the world’s crop production, increasing outputs of 87 of the leading food crops worldwide, as well as many plant-derived medicines. Approximately 80% of all flowering plant species are pollinated by animals, including vertebrates and mammals—but the main pollinators are insects. As such, pollinating insects like bees, play a intrinsic role in the maintenance of natural plant communities and ensuring the production of seeds, which are linked directly to our global food system.
Without bees, humans would not have most of the delicious and nourishing fruits, seeds, nuts and vegetables that we eat today. These very foods provide vital nutrition which fights against chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, some cancers and cardiovascular disease, which animal-based foods are known to play a large role in causing.
Human health alongside the complex web of ecosystems are reliant on these these tiny little insects that individually are not much bigger than a 10cent piece.
The destruction of the bees and other pollinators is just another disappointing example of how anthropogenic human activity negatively impacts other species. Animal agriculture, which includes managed beehive and honey production, is the cause of some of the worst environmental impacts on our planet, and is a key driver in climate change creating a very inhospitable world for many species.
Until humans stop reshaping the planet without considering the full implications of our actions on the intricate web of ecosystems, we only damage the home we share by creating a debilitating future risking our survival. As we begin the start of the 6th period of mass species extinction not seen in the last 66 million years, pollinators and animals are not going to survive without a radical transformation in how we connect to our environment.
Policy makers must be made aware of a country’s vulnerability to pollinator declines so that strategies can be created to address the threats and optimise health outcomes for everyone. In the US, the establishment of a task force and strategy was created to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators, while studying the environmental and anthropogenic stressors. The European Union has instead chose to focus on restricting use of pollinator-harming neonicotinoid pesticides and promoting apiculture programs.
We can all help the bees in a number of ways.
- Begin by taking animal products off your plate and not supporting the animal agriculture industries who cause most of the ecosystem, biodiversity and habitat destruction that threaten bees.
- Replace honey with rice malt syrup and purchase bee-product free cosmetics.
- Try looking for and buying organic food to ensure that crop protection chemicals are not used.
- Plant a window garden to encourage biodiversity and feed the bees while not using pesticides and herbicides.
Start helping today by making some of these simple changes in your life and can help create a more sustainable food future for everyone.