Skip to main content

Fate of bees shows what a mess we've made of Eden

Albert Einstein may or may no (opens in new tab)t have said: "If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination … no more men!"

The message is chilling enough whether it came from the mouth of the great phyicisit or not. If anything might alert us to the fact we've gone too far with our messing with the planet it may be the fate of the bee.

Recent research has suggested that the mobile phone is repsonsible for the decline in bee numbers. This week the decline is blamed on a "cocktail" of chemicals (opens in new tab) affecting the pollinators' habitats.

What is almost certain is that it is the actions of man that have caused a crisis in bee populations around the globe and most particularly in Britain.

Some £10 million has recently been invested in nine projects that will try to explain what is happening to the bee and - hopefully suggest what we can do about it.

The Insect Pollinators Initiative

If bees and other pollinators were to disappear completely, the cost to the UK economy could be up to £440m per year, scientists have warned.

This amounts to about 13% of the country's income from farming. In a bid to save the declining insects, up to

Environmental organisations are calling for a UK neonicotinoid pesticide suspension. A comprehensive report released today by Buglife reveals that the neonicotinoid pesticide imidacloprid damages the health and life cycle of bees.

While this is unlikely to explain Colony Collapse Disorder in the Honey bee, it could be a key contributory factor and may well be part of the cause for widespread declines in wild bee populations. The report also exposes that the current process for approving crop pesticides is inadequate for assessing risks to bees and other wildlife.

According to one study, bees are disappearing from England faster than anywhere else in Europe. More than half of hives have died out over the last 20 years. Butterflies and other insects are also in decline due to habitat loss and climate change.

The situation is so serious that the government has launched a £10 million project to find out what is causing bees and other insects to disappear.

Matt Shardlow, Chief Executive of the insect charity Buglife, said the project is essential to food security.

"Humans depend on the free services of wild pollinators including bees, moths and hoverflies," he said. "However, more than 250 pollinator species are now declining and under threat, animals that pollinated our ancestors' food are heading towards extinction and those that might pollinate our descendant's food may not survive."Indeed Albert Einstein predicted that if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life to live.It is estimated insect pollinators contribute £440 million to the British economy through their role in fertilising crops.The Insect Pollinator Initiative will be the most comprehensive study ever carried out in Britain into why insects are declining.Universities and research bodies have already put forward nine projects, including plans to tag bees to find out if they are affected by pesticides.The University of Dundee study will investigate whether certain pesticides damage the nervous systems of bees and stop them being able to do the "waggle dance" which shows the rest of the hive where a food source is located.Professor Jane Memmot, of the Univerisity of Bristol, will look at whether bees are more suited to an urban environment than the "monoculture" of large swathes of crops in the countryside.She said crops like strawberries need wild flowers nearby to maintain a population of bees and other insects to pollinate the fruit in summer."If strawberries are not pollinated by insects we end up with distorted fruit that is only good for jam," she said.Lord Henley, the Environment Minister, said the projects would not only look at why bees are declining but offer ways to boost the population again."Bees, butterflies and moths play an essential role in putting food on out tables through the pollination of many vital crops. This initiative will help some of our world-class researchers to identify why bee numbers are declining, and that will help us to take the right action to help," he said."It is crucial we all work together on this and the biggest challenge will be to better understand the complex relationships between biological and environmental factors that affect pollinators' health and lifespan."If bees and other pollinators were to disappear completely, the cost to the UK economy could be up to £440m per year, scientists have warned.This amounts to about 13% of the country's income from farming.In a bid to save the declining insects, up to £10m has been invested in nine projects that will explore threats to pollinators.The Insect Pollinators Initiative will look at different aspects of the insects' decline.The initiative brings together specialists from a number of UK universities, as well as from the Food & Environment Research Agency and the Natural Environment Research Council's (Nerc) Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.It is funded by several public and charity organisations, led by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).Honeybees, hoverflies, wasps, bumblebees, moths and butterflies play a vital role in feeding people through the pollination of crops.Continue reading the main story Bumblebees have declined worldwide, largely due to the loss of flowers and other habitats they need to survive in the countrysideClaire Carvell Centre for Ecology and HydrologySpeaking at a news briefing at the Science Media Centre, Professor Andrew Watkinson, director of the Living with Environmental Change programme, said that the new initiative "allowed us to bring in new skills in gene sequencing and epidemiological modelling with the expertise that already exists in the pollinator research community".Some projects will look at factors affecting the health and survival of pollinators in general. Others will focus on specific species and diseases.'Catastrophic' declineProfessor Watkinson said there was no single factor that could explain the pollinators' decline."There's a whole range of agriculture and land use, disease, environmental change [and] pesticides," he said."To tackle a complex problem like the decline of pollinating insects, where there are a number of potential causes, requires wide-ranging research."For some species, such as bumblebees, the decline was "catastrophic", he added."It's really difficult to quantify [the extent of the decline of pollinators] and that's one of the problems we really need to address."What we need is some robust science and I think that this programme is going to provide it."Another speaker, Claire Carvell from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said that since the 1970s, there had been a 75% decline of butterfly species in the UK.Also, out of 25 species of bumblebees, three had gone extinct, she added.Bee Inspector at work Inspectors are monitoring the health of honeybee colonies in England and WalesThese "extra special" bees with large hairy bodies are very effective at transferring pollen between flowers, she commented."They are also active at lower temperatures than other bees, so you'll see them out working earlier and later in the day."But bumblebees have declined worldwide, largely due to the loss of flowers and other habitats they need to survive in the countryside."Dr Carvell said that her team will use a method of collecting DNA from live wild bumblebees to estimate how far queen bees fly to start new nests and how far workers fly to forage."These findings will allow us to manage landscapes in ways that are effective in conserving bumblebee populations," she concluded.A brain disorder?Neurobiologist Chris Connolly, of the University of Dundee, is leading research into the effect pesticides have on bees.Continue reading the main story A single pesticide or miticide is not likely to be responsible… but a cocktail of different pesticides or miticides might [have a combined effect] to amplify the brain problemChris Connolly University of DundeeIn particular, his team will assess any possible damage to the insects' abilities to gather food, navigate and even perform their special "waggle dance", which they use to let other bees know where nectar can be found.He said that the pollinators' decline could be partially explained by a brain disorder - triggered by chemicals in pesticides."A single pesticide or miticide is not likely to be responsible… but a cocktail of different pesticides or miticides might [have a combined effect] to amplify the brain problem," explained Dr Connolly.His study will concentrate on identifying these dangerous combinations in order to advise farmers about how to avoid them in the future.It will include fitting tiny radio frequency ID tags to pollinators, which will act like "barcodes at the supermarket", recording when insects enter and leave the nest.Wasp feeding on figwort flower Wasps are also in declineOther projects include investigating ecology and conservation of pollinators in cities, researching the impact of a mite named Varroa destructor, and looking into the effects of agriculture on bees.The vital thing, Professor Watkinson stated, was for the scientists to communicate the results of their studies to the people in the field - beekeepers and farmers."It is imperative that the science that's being done is fed through as quickly as possible to the conservationists and to the agricultural community, so that we can ensure food security and also the maintenance of our biodiversity," he said. monitors all leading technology stories and rounds them up to help you save time hunting them down.