Man's best friend

Why sav­ing the bees could also mean sav­ing our­selves

Element - - Front Page - By Andy Ken­wor­thy

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.

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