Imagining a World Without Bees

With Chinese farmers hand pollinating apple and pear orchids and corporations designing ‘robo-bees’, are we really that close to a world without bees?

The threats to bees worldwide aren’t going away. From habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity and natural food resources, the effects of pesticides and herbicides (directly on bees or their environments), to climate change. Earlier this week the media was reporting on bee losses in South Australia due to extreme temperatures. And today, the ABC has reported on the plight of Tasmanian honey producers who are preparing to hold a crisis meeting after experiencing their worst season in decades.

Dr Anneke Veenstra is Senior Lecturer at the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University. She teaches subjects such as “Animal Diversity”, “Vertebrate Structure and Function” and “Australian Invertebrates”, so she’s someone you’d expect to understand just how dire a world without bees would actually be. Speaking to Deakin publication This, a world without honey bees is something Dr Veenstra doesn’t want to contemplate.

“We could struggle to sustain the global human population,” she said. “If we lost all the plants that honey bees pollinate, the small animals that eat those plants will be negatively impacted resulting in fewer prey species for larger carnivorous animals and so on up the food chain,”

“Walking into a supermarket would be a different experience, you could expect to find half the amount of fruit and vegetables that are available today”.

In the USA beekeepers are already losing 30% of their bee colonies every winter, due to a variety of factors including Varroa Mite. So supermarket giant Whole Foods Market decided to explore what its shelves would look like in a post-bee world. And it’s a pretty sobering sight. No more smashed avocado with our flat white, that’s for sure! Though an orange juice appears to still be a possibility.

But are we really looking at a world without bees? Many natives across the world have already been lost, with often-solitary bumblebee species particularly hard hit. It’s the devastating loss of wild bees due to extensive pesticide use in South Western China that led to farmers pollinating apples and pears by hand. But what about our honey bees?

Well, they are unlikely to go completely extinct, according to the BBC’s Earth Unplugged. But as China Dialogue reports, recent studies from the UK suggest that only about one-third of insect pollination is delivered by honey bees. While overall they have some involvement in pollinating up to two-thirds of our foods, the rest of the work is being carried out by a range of wild insects. These insects need undisturbed habitats to nest and with food supplies for when crops are not flowering. With land still being cleared for intensively farmed mono-crops, and flower meadows and woodlands in decline across the world, their only food sources and habitats are disappearing.

So it seems, despite suffering their own decline, we will need honeybees to increasingly fill gaps left by other insect pollinators. This brings us to the real and more plausible global emergency; simply not having enough bees to uphold food production for seven billion people and counting.

As China Dialogue notes:

“In the last 50 years, the global human population has nearly doubled, while the average calories consumed per person has increased by about 30%.

To cope with the ever growing demand for food, more land has been brought into agricultural production, mainly by clearing forests, and farming has become much more intensive. Fertilisers, pesticides, and development of new plant varieties have allowed farmers to increase the average yield of food per hectare to increase by 130% in the same period.

It is obvious that this pattern cannot go on for ever; we will run out of forests to clear, and we cannot squeeze ever more food from the same area of land. There are cracks beginning to show; highly intensive farming may not be sustainable in the long term.”

Not to mention that this intensive farming system will likely collapse without enough pollinators! And there are less obvious knock-on effects of losing crops that rely on bees or other insects. An example detailed in Business Insider shows how dairy and beef farming could be affected. In many parts of the world cows’ diets are supplemented with ground almond hulls, and alfalfa hay is an essential feed. These are reliant on insect pollination, almonds being 100% bee pollinated. If enough suitable replacements aren’t found, then feeding cows becomes difficult and expensive. Beef and dairy products could become incredibly pricey, if available at all.

How will Australians react when a steak or a hamburger becomes a very expensive luxury? With growing inequality even in developed countries like Australia and the USA, there are social ramifications of food scarcity that we need to think about. The Global Financial Crisis in 2008 also caused a global food crisis, with food riots running rampant in low income countries. There have also been many “hidden costs” of this crisis, but the world seems to have not heeded any lessons.

So what is the solution? Habitat restoration and moving towards regenerative, biodiverse farming practices seem like the obvious answers. The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, declared on 1 March 2019 by the UN General Assembly, is a huge beacon of hope. The Agro-forestry movement is another.

Community gardens, small scale permaculture and food forests are all sustainable and accessible options on a community level that can fight food scarcity and provide fodder for bees. And the individual isn’t powerless either. Whether it’s growing herbs on your balcony, volunteering to plant trees, rescuing and keeping your own bees or even reforesting thousands of acres of degraded farmland yourself, it all adds up!

How close are we to losing our bees? Maddie Moate from the BBC’s Earth Unplugged explains.

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