Mass loss of bees threatens our ecosystem of food production

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MANY people think that bees are simply good for making honey. That bees provide us with honey is certainly true and honey is a highly nutritious and wholly natural wonder-food. But bees are far more important than that. They are a vital part of our ecosystem and are essential to our survival. Almost 70 per cent of global food crops require pollination. Yet bees are dying out globally at an alarming rate.

With no bees, we would be forced to live without products such as flowers, nuts, soya beans, onions, carrots, broccoli, sunflowers, apples, oranges and much, much more. Alfalfa, used for cattle feed, is also dependent on the honey bee, which would mean a fall in meat production. Certain medicinal plants and cotton rely on insect pollinators. Worldwide, 90 commercial crops require pollination to survive. If bees die out, mankind might follow soon after.

The UK bee population has experienced mass losses. Last year, Scotland's beekeepers saw a 30 per cent decrease in bee populations after a summer of terrible weather. The vanishing bee syndrome or, as it has become known, Colony Collapse Disorder, started to filter through in news reports in 2007. For two years running, a third of all honey bees in the European Union and the United States have died mysteriously. In some countries, such as Germany and Slovenia, the losses have been as high as 60 per cent.

What is causing the mass disappearance of bees in Europe? Scientists have yet to find a definitive answer. But they all seem to come back to the same conclusion: bee colonies are stressed. Changing climate, poor air quality, monoculture and the over-use of some toxic chemicals have all taken their toll on bee health. A stressed or unhealthy bee is more susceptible to disease and to the increasingly prevalent varroa mite.

The varroa destructor is an external parasitic mite that can only replicate in a honey bee colony and attacks honey bees causing a disease called varroatosis. A significant mite infestation will lead to the death of a honey- bee colony, usually in the late autumn through to early spring.

Treatment for varroa is costly. The EU makes the regulatory approval of medicines so bureaucratic and expensive that suppliers have little option but to pass on the extra cost to beekeepers. The more expensive these medicines become, the fewer beekeepers can afford to use them, allowing the disease to flourish.

Some people point the finger at pesticides, but this argument has been challenged even by beekeepers. Pesticides are, by nature, a toxic chemical. However, if their application to crops is strictly controlled, bees can thrive unharmed.

The main culprit for our disappearing bee population seems to be mono-cultural farming. The former rich, green pastures full of nectar-producing plants, have in some parts of the UK become cereal deserts.

Cereal crops like barley and wheat are pollinated by the wind and, therefore, bees don't feed on them. Without readily available food, the whole colony perishes.

Farmers in Canada have overcome this problem by planting beneficial crops in set-aside land to provide the valuable nectar that bees require. Although a return to set-aside farmland is not the answer for the EU, we could reward farmers under existing environmental programmes and rural stewardship schemes, for doing the same thing.

By sowing small strips of land with crops such as the exotic flower phacelia, together with borage, charlock, wild white clover and other nectar-rich plants, we could create a haven not only for bees but also for birds and other animals and insects. Small strips of land sown with these relatively cheap seeds would benefit not only bees but also our whole ecosystem.

The loss of bees is not just a problem for beekeepers, but for the whole world.

Probably the most fundamental link in the food chain, the honey bee is fast becoming the weakest.