Where Would We Bee?

25 February 2016

Imagine the world 135 million years ago. Imagine a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the planet did not look anything like it does today.

If you could pry your eyes away from that T­Rex for one moment you would notice something remarkable. There were no flowers. No orchids, no daisies, no Valentine’s Day. Yet all of that was about to change, because one little creature became the most specialised and successful pollinator the world has ever seen.

The emergence of the bee enormously diversified the flora of our planet. Before insects, plants relied entirely on wind pollination. It was pure chance whether a male plant’s pollen found its way to a female plant. Wind pollination was a dating nightmare. It was an extremely inefficient and wasteful system with about 99.99 per cent of the pollen just going to waste.

Bees became the most efficient way of distributing pollen for plants. Visually attractive plants like flowers essentially evolved as a marketing campaign to attract bees and other insects. Bees made the process of finding a female flower infinitely easier and far more predictable than it had ever been before.

The first bumblebee emerged 30­40 million years ago and became a backbone to the world’s ecosystem. But the real problem is: what happens to plant life – in fact, all life – on earth when you take away that structural support?

The relationship that bees have with plants is responsible for billions of dollars of food products and 85 per cent of flowering plants. Bees pollinate one third of global food supplies. Yet honeybee colonies have decreased by 20 per cent in Europe and nearly three times that in North America in the past twenty years.

In Australia, the honey and bee products industry is valued at approximately $90 million per annum and pollination services contribute millions of dollars to the value of Australian agricultural production each year.

The reason for the rapid decline in bees is still under contention. Global warming and pesticides like neonicotinoids, used for agricultural seed treatment, have been named as leading culprits. Native bees are responsible for 90 per cent of watermelon pollination and produce far more apples, blueberries and tomatoes than honeybees. Unlike honeybees, native bees are not under the protection of humans. In North America, 50 per cent of native bee species in the Midwest have disappeared.

We must act soon if we want to save our crops from further degradation.

In 2014, President Obama established a Pollinator Health Task Force and the USDA promised $8 million in incentives for farmers who create new habitats for honeybees. In Australia, the National Bee Pest Surveillance Program carefully monitors the introduction of pests that may affect bee populations, and the National Bee Biosecurity Program has been set up to increase the preparedness and surveillance of pests and diseases in the honey industry.

Yet economic harms are often difficult for the average citizen to fathom. If bees disappeared tomorrow, it is not just honey that would vanish. The human diet would suffer a great loss. Many staple foods like corn, wheat and rice would remain, however your cup of coffee each morning would cost exponentially more.

Almonds would likely not exist. Blueberries, avocadoes, apples, onions, grapes, walnuts, watermelon and strawberries would become scarce. Kiss that summer pavlova goodbye.

As an individual, you can start by planting flowers free from pesticides in your backyard or in community gardens. Buying locally grown fruit, vegetables and honey will go a long way in supporting local beekeepers. The Queen Vic markets or The University of Melbourne farmer’s market are perfect places to start.

However helpful these changes will be, if we want long­term protection for our ecosystem, global climate change must be combatted on an international level.

Otherwise, bee populations will be as exhausted as humans will be if our morning cup of coffee doesn’t come cheap.

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