Jo McCarroll is abuzz about bees… and calling on you to be part of our campaign to help them out
We love bees here at NZ Gardener and I’m going to assume that if you are reading this magazine you love them too. I mean, who doesn’t love bees? They pollinate many of the crops we eat and the flowers we grow. They work hard – so hard that a couple of years ago the Ministry of Primary Industries estimated bees and other pollinators helped deliver $5 billion a year to the New Zealand bottom line. Yet they never ask for a salary. Which is surprising because bees are clearly very good at maths. (A honeycomb is considered one of the most mathematically efficient architectural designs in existence.)
Bees are not the only pollinators out there of course. Native bees, bumblebees, wasps, ants, flies, butterflies, birds, mammals, even the wind: they all play an important role in the bigger pollination picture. Here at NZ Gardener we find a lot to love about most of them too.
(I especially love bumblebees. Bumblebees are so smart that a study this year in the UK found they could learn to manoeuvre a ball to get to sugar water just by watching someone else complete the task. In another study bumbles worked out how to pull on a string to access food; the only invertebrate that has been able to do so. Admittedly only two of 110 bumblebees in the test figured it out by themselves, but those two then showed the other 108, and went on to teach the bees back in the hive.)
As I assume you know already, bees and pollinators are facing some challenges right now. Bee populations in much of the world have sharply declined partly due to the mysterious phenomenon colony collapse disorder, which might be caused by mites, a virus or fungus, pesticides or industrialised agriculture. Possibly it’s a combination of all these.
The situation in New Zealand is different – the boom manuka honey industry means we have more managed hives than ever – and while varroa is here we don’t seem to be experiencing colony collapse. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to help bees. The worst case scenario is the problems seen overseas will start to occur, in which case bees need all the help they can get. The best case scenario? Nothing changes here but we help bees out a bit anyway. Which is fine because like I said, we love bees.
So what can you do? Well one challenge facing bees is a decline in their foraging habitat so this issue comes with a free pack of nectar- and pollen-rich wildflower seeds to sow in your own garden. We’re also running the Great Kiwi Bee Count, a citizen science project like a digital census for bees. It takes two minutes and you’ll learn about different pollinators. Go to www.stuff.co.nz/greatkiwibeecount to take part.
NZ Gardener is driving a spot of activism too. I have launched an online petition calling on garden retailers to remove sprays containing neonicotinoids from their shelves. Neonicotinoids are chemicals that have been linked to bee decline and their use is banned or restricted in several countries. Some retailers here – The Warehouse and Placemakers – have already stopped selling products containing these chemicals. I’d like to see other retailers do that too and I think if enough gardeners agree, those other retailers might listen. If you feel the same, sign the petition at www.toko.org.nz/p/savethebees.
I am not suggesting this would solve all the problems bees face, it is just one small thing. And I am aware that the science around neonicotinoids is complex and at times controversial. But I think there is no downside and a real upside to reducing our use of these chemicals. Plus it is something we can do now. And I for one don’t want to end up wishing we had done something sooner.