Erikka Askeland: What’s buzz over crisis facing bees?

Erikka Askeland. Picture: TSPL
Erikka Askeland. Picture: TSPL
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THERE are so many substantive things for us to worry about these days. War in the Middle East and the tricky question of what to do with Syria’s rogue dictator al-Assad is a good one.

Fretting about whether the rickety world economy means you or I will still have a job next month has been a perennial favourite for many over the past few years. But the one that always gets me is the bees.

Last year I started snapping pictures of bees I saw in the garden and sending them off to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. I wasn’t just doing it like some random nutter. The group had put out a call for people to do so as a means of tracking the bee population. According to their website, they are still doing it. But as my garden is a bit sparse and the camera on my smartphone isn’t quite up to the job of catching the wily little beasts, I have since given up. Or am I just disheartened that there haven’t been enough bees in the garden to pap?

But it seems to be the case that the bees are stressed too. This week, I couldn’t help but be a bit shaken by a case of American foul brood – a ghastly affliction affecting bee colonies – being found at an apiary in Strathglass near Inverness. It was the third case in as many months in Scotland, with recent notifications of the same disease being found in Stranraer and Ballinluig, Perthshire.

Geographic distance suggests the cases aren’t linked. But when beekeepers have a case of American foul brood confirmed, their only option is to go nuclear and torch the hive where it is found. Because the bacteria that causes the disease is so contagious and resilient, fire is the only way to eradicate it. Although in the US some states allow bee farmers to use antibiotics, fears that this might lead to the creation of a super strain of the bee-killing Paenibacillus larvae means this is not allowed in 
the UK.

Most people have probably heard about how colonies of bees are mysterioulsy collapsing around the world. Some have pointed the finger at Bayer and Syngenta, the chemical giants that make “neonicotinoid” insecticides thought to mess with bees’ heads. Others have suggested bees are losing the battle in a war with a parastic mite, the charmingly named varroa destructor. I haven’t ruled out that the two potential causes are linked somehow.

Last month, a grocery retailer published pictures of what the shelves of their veg section would look like if there were no bees. Suffice to say it looked pretty sparse, and we’d all have to start loving oranges a lot if we wished to get close to being able to eat the recommended number of fruit and vegetables a day.

This may not be a worry for most Scots, however, particularly those who insist that chips and sauce count as at least two of their five daily servings of veg. Glaswegians who prefer tomato sauce may even get three – albeit supplies of the red condiment will also be at risk without the humble bumblebee.

But the question is, does it do any good to worry? Yes, if it leads you to plant bee-friendly wild flowers in your garden. The Bumblebee Trust recommends such likeable plants as roses, hawthorn, cow parsley, foxgloves and heathers to ensure bees have fruitful plants from which to forage pollen.

But while anxiety is a built-in response to jeopardy and menace, it can also be counter productive. Worrying about the worst case scenario can encourage you to see danger where there is none. Nor does it help the anxious to think straight. Psychology researchers at an unusual event called the ZombieLab, held at London’s Science Museum earlier this year, tested out the effect of panic on people playing a game. They found that when stressed-out players were threatened by the walking dead, they witlessly ran their game self through the same door they had entered, even if other exits were available and had fewer zombies around them. The subjects showed how increased stress caused them to revert to the tried and well trodden, rather than sparking an ingenious plan of escape.

So people, the nub of the matter is, Lance-Corporal Jones was right: don’t panic. Breathe and relax. Then think. And then plant some wild flowers.