Man's best friend
Why saving the bees could also mean saving ourselves
As farmland becomes increasingly denuded of the variety of plants beloved by bees, the cities have become their new haven. A great example has been set by the presence of more than 100,000 bees based in two hives on the balcony of the Auckland Town Hall. They have both a symbolic purpose to raise awareness of the importance of bees to the nation’s environment and economy, and a practical one as they are monitored to provide an early warning system against the potential of imported bee diseases or parasites emanating from the nearby port.
Meanwhile, the first harvest has produced around 100kg of honey for the new Auckland Town Hall label. Some will go to Mayor Len Brown for civic gifts and the Auckland Beekeepers Club will sell the rest to pay for the upkeep of the hives and research.
This feel-good story is tempered by the news from overseas: honey bees are dying off in huge numbers in Europe and the US, and similar reports are coming in from all over the world.
Declines in bee colonies date back to the mid-1960s in Europe, but have accelerated since 1998. The problem hit the headlines in 2004 in the US, as thousands of bee colonies began abandoning their queens and their hives and disappearing overnight, in an eerie phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). It has since hit Europe and other beekeeping areas around the world.
Although New Zealand is yet to report its first cases of colony collapse, bees are dying off here too. New Zealand’s National Beekeepers Association says concerning reports are coming in from both islands of up to 30 per cent bee losses, particularly in Canterbury and Poverty Bay. The association is currently surveying members’ experiences to get a clearer picture.
This should alarm us for a number of reasons. The NBA has about 3000 registered beekeepers looking after just under 400,000 hives, producing a range of valuable products. About 10,000 tonnes of honey are produced every year, with almost more than a third of that going to earn export cash overseas. Exports of honey alone are valued at around $81 million, including $4 million of premium organic honey.
But Dr Brad Howlett, a pollination scientist for the New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research at Lincoln University, recently explained how the impact goes much further than that.
“Approximately one in three mouthfuls of our food, including the majority of high-value crops that contribute to healthy diets – most fruits, vegetables, and nuts which provide most of the vitamins – are from insect-pollinated crops. This pollination service contributes at least $2 billion annually to New Zealand’s economy and directly underpins $12.5 billion of export revenue from the horticulture, arable, pastoral and beekeeping sectors.”
Globally, some estimates suggest that about a third of humanity’s food production currently relies on insect pollination, a lot of it done by honey bees. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates that out of some 100 crop species which provide 90 per cent of food worldwide, nearly three quarters are pollinated by bees. In Europe, 84 per cent of the 264 crop species are animal pollinated and 4,000 vegetable varieties exist thanks to them.
Some of the effects of the crisis are already bordering on the bizarre. The $2 billion almond crop in California requires one million honey bee hives for cross-pollination, which is more than 40 per cent of all the beehives in the US. So, come almond-tree flowering season, which begins in February, beekeepers from all over the country and even as far away as Australia send their hives to San Joaquin Valley to do the work.
And in Szechaun, China, ever since bees in the region were wiped out 20 years ago, people in pear growing areas have had to laboriously pollinate the trees themselves, by scrubbing the pollen from the pear trees, drying it by hand, and carefully dusting it onto each pear blossom with paint brushes.