Okay folks, today's lifestyle post is very different to the usual but it's something very dear to my heart and therefore, something I wanted to share on NB because y'all, I'm straight up loving the fact that this lil' blog is becoming a more personal space. So since last week (and particularly over the last couple of days) people have been discussing the awful news that the bombus affinis a.k.a. the rusty patched bumblebee is officially on the endangered species list for the US. Not only are they now on the endangered species list overseas, but their once healthy numbers are rapidly decreasing here in the UK too as now there are only 25 species compared to the 50 native species that were around in the 1950's. Bees are one of my favourite animals/insects and they're so important in our society that it genuinely gets me down that people don't seem to be in more of an uproar about this news. Whilst I understand that a lot individuals fight bees intimidating as they're scared of them or allergic to their sting, they're vital in our survival and guess what? I'm not being one ounce of dramatic when I say that - they genuinely do keep us humans surviving and thriving. As they're such key characters in our existence and because spring has arrived (and the fact that I just bloody love them), I thought I'd put together some information on why these little fellas should be so looked after by us all and what small or big steps you can take to make them feel at home and hopefully get there numbers back up to a healthy amount!
Some Facts and Statistics
I really need to give you some facts about why these wee guys are so vital to us. Bees are our primary pollinators and are economically valued at around 265 billion euros annually worldwide. That means if they died out, we'd have to invest that money from our various country's economies in order to replace the hard work bees do. Just Europe alone would have to pay 14.2 billion euros a year to cover the loss! So even if we were just looking at bees from a commercial point of view, they're invaluable for so many nations. With that in mind, since 2010, 45% of the UK's honeybees have been wiped out. The number of bees we have has almost halved in 7 years - that number should be terrifying especially when we consider that various economies rely so heavily on them. So I know I know, I bet some of you are wondering exactly what it is that bees are producing right? I mean, 265 billion euros is a hell of a lot of money and you know why? It's because one third I repeat, one third of our food production is directly linked to pollinating insects (this includes bumblebees and other wild bees as well flies, wasps, butterflies etc.). So if we didn't have bees - not only would supplies such as honey inevitably dwindle, but we'd also lose out on *a lot* of other produce that we would then have to manually manufacture ourselves and thus, consuming a lot of money, time, effort and resources. The growth of around 4,000 vegetables a year in Europe alone depend of bees pollinating. We could kiss goodbye to naturally and organically grown things such as courgettes/zucchini, coriander, almonds, various fruits... They all rely on the work of our top pollinators. I mean come on, imagine a world without potatoes, watermelon, cherries, nuts, carrots, avocados... Need I go on?!
According to Greenpeace, wild and domestic honey bees are responsible for 80% - eighty percent - of pollination worldwide. So if some of you are sat there thinking "yeah Amy, but we'd still have butterflies and wasps etc. if the bees did die out" we would be in a bit of a shit show actually and would have an awful lot to try and do ourselves. If 70 out of 100 of the most popular food crops are the result of bee pollination, and those 70 make up around 90% of the world's nutrition, surely it's a no brainer that these wee buzzing fellows need a bit of TLC and we need to give them a helping hand to survive?
So, why are they dying?
There's some obvious (and some natural) reasons why bee numbers are decreasing globally and nationally, but there are also some things that are entirely our fault, as the human race, that really needs to stop in order to prevent this major issue from getting any worse. It will be no surprise to any of you that one of the main causes for the decline in bee numbers - particularly wild bees - is the use of of chemicals such as insecticides in industrial agriculture. Of course agriculture is a central part of our human existence as we need to farm in order to live. It is what we have done for thousands of years but doing it naturally and organically is few and far between now and not the "routine" method. Farmers bathe their crops in all sorts of chemically-intensive solutions that are dangerous to many insects including bees in order to grow ripe and bountiful crops (side note: these chemicals can be detrimental to our health also!). However this is exactly what is killing off those workers who product many other crops and nutrition for us, for free.
Studies have shown that exposure to insecticides has a direct correlation with negative health impacts on whole bee colonies. If it is not instantly harming bees, it is harming them in a multitude of physiological and neurological ways. The little buzzers have been shown to be malnourished growing at a slower rate (meaning they take longer to reach adulthood and therefore taking longer to reach their "full potential" as a pollinator) and sometimes deformities are present within the hive. And neurologically? These guys have been successful for all these years because they're damn smart. They learn from each other and their environment incredibly quick. But these pesticides are effecting their cognitive processes so they're struggling to learn from each other in the hive but also learning the wrong way out and about in the big wide world. They're identifying flowers and locations that would actually be incredibly beneficial for the pollinators to visit as being dangerous "stay clear" areas and flora as they may have had one bad experience with that particular plant (as it was covered in chemicals) and therefore run from it instead of harvesting from it.
Other factors are of course, also responsible. Climate change as a whole is having an impact on bee populations but as is bee mites which fester on the little guys just like we can be prone to disease and infection ourselves. These causes are things a little more out of our direct reach in the sense that they're not things we can solve quickly or at all in the essence of naturally occurring bee mites, but another major problem for bees is yep, yet again, something we're doing. Our 25 remaining wild bee species are used to the lovely colourful rolling hills of Britain yet as the years go by, they have smaller and smaller areas to find such lush green land. We are being destructive to our planet and our environment and whilst this isn't something new to us, we're not doing enough to prevent it and it's having more and more of an effect on many species of flora and fauna than ever before. It has been estimated that we have lost around 97% of land rich in flowers since the 1930's and considering flowers are bees main source of food, can we really be surprised to see that all fingers of blame are pointing towards us for their endangerment?
Okay so we're to blame - what can we do to help?
Let me quickly apologise for how negative this post has got - whilst I think we need to take a great deal of responsibility for this ongoing fuck up, there is actually a hell of a lot of work that we could do in order to rectify the mistakes we have made and hopefully help bee populations get back on their feet.
- First off, honey. Where possible, buy your honey organically from local artisan suppliers. I'm not talking about the stuff with the "organic" label slapped on it in the supermarket that suspiciously came from the same place the non-organic stuff came from; I'm talking about the "proper stuff". Not only are bees misused in industrial mass-produced honey making as they're transported in trucks from their native familiar surroundings and land, but all of the natural health benefits of honey are cooked out of the honey before it gets to the shelves. If you can't get artisan stuff because hell let's be honest - it will be expensive and not readily available - look for "non heated/transformed" honey otherwise it won't benefit your health at all. You can also be safe in the knowledge that you're supporting domestic honeybee farming that does not over farm or misuse the bees.
- Eat organic as much as you can. Yes, it's more expensive. Yes, you often get less for your money but it is the easiest way to support bees as you are putting the money in the pockets of those companies and individuals who refuse to make their crops poisonous to pollinators.
- Gardens fit for bees. I'm sure every single one of you have seen a huge bumblebee come buzzing past your back door during the hot summer months, looking for some tasty nectar in order to recharge. So obviously one of the best things you can do is make sure your garden is jam-packed with flowery delights for every visiting bumble. Ideally, a garden will have flowers/plants which will bloom through spring til autumn so no matter what the crazy British weather throws at them, bees will have somewhere to feed come rain or shine. These flowers should be planted in large patches/clusters to make it easy for foraging. As for example, bumblebees like to stick to one particular species of flower as they forage and can often tire themselves out looking for more of the same type. Imagine the only place you could get some Chinese cuisine was in a little China Town in your local city and you had to travel to the next city's China Town to get your next fix - it's exactly like that for these guys. Your flowers will preferably be different shapes also as different species have different tongue lengths and therefore have a preference on where they feed - just like us and our taste buds and appetites!
Favourite flowers for bumblebees:
Lavender, Rosemary, Deadnettle and Oregano (and other flowering plants from the Lamiaceae family) are all main sources of nectar and Clover - particularly red clover, Trefoils, and Runner Beans (and other plants from the Fabaceae family) are the main sources of pollen for bumblebees so they'd really appreciate seeing these in your garden! Other flowering families they tend to like are:
- Asteraceae (Thistle-like flowers, Cardoon, Knapweeds etc.)
- Boraginaceae (Comfrey, Cynoglossum, Cerinthe, etc)
- Dipsacaceae (Teasels, Scabiouses)
- Ericaceae (Blueberries, Strawberry Trees, Heathers)
- Rosaceae (Brambles, Raspberries, Single-flower Roses)
- Scrophulariaceae (Foxgloves, Veronica, Hebe etc)
Not so favourite/down right bad for bumblebees:
- Insecticides of any type - including "organic" ones! (Who even wants to use organic pesticide man?!)
- Most bedding plants - in other words, those plants which are sold in polystyrene strips in garden centres and DIY stores (e.g. Petunias, Begonias, Busy Lizzies, French Marigolds, Pansies etc.)
- "Double" flowers
For a super comprehensive list of flowers/plants that are good for our bee buddies and when they bloom so you can plant a good array is available on the Bug Life website!
- Give them a home! Of course if you're planting flowers for our pollinator pals, you're doing a grand job supporting them as it is. But if you don't mind being around bees, you can provide them with somewhere to thrive in small groups. Something as simple as putting a pile of leaves in a sunny quiet corner of your lawn will provide a welcomed habitat for bumblebees. They also quite like undisturbed compost heaps or quiet hedgerows for building nests. If you want to go a step further, you could buy a bee hotel from many garden centres and online stores or simply make your own! Simply dig out a patch of your grass, place some dry grass or moss at the bottom of it and cover the hole over with a paving slab or a brick leaving only a small entrance for them and voila! an instant home. I've currently got some guys who nest in my wall outside my front door and they seem content there.
- Help track bees. Another great way to help is to track bee activity in a variety of ways. Bumble Bee Conservation have a couple of ways you can help from tracking which species enter your garden with apps, to surveying which flowers are certain bees favourites to visit and use, to being involved in Bee Walks to survey areas if you're into your fitness and getting out in nature - there's something for everyone.
- Make donations. There are a lot of different charities and activists trying to grow and support bee populations through anti-pesticide farming to creating bee keeping sanctuaries to try and grow numbers. You can obviously donate to these causes but also invest in packs like Bee Saver Kit which can tell you everything you need to know about helping our buzzing buddies.
- Educate yourself further. The last recommendation I want to make is actually a documentary by Markus Imhoof. More Than Honey does exactly as it's name suggests; the film delves deeper into the treatment of bees and basically how fucked we'd be without them. Please, watch it if this post has got your interest peaked as it's incredibly insightful.
Wow, that was a long one wasn't it? I commend you if you've made it all the way to the end, but this is a topic that I think is extremely important to discuss and make more people aware of as I often feel, as human beings, we are quite relaxed about things like this until it's too late to change them. If I somehow haven't bored you and you want to find out more about bees in general - not just how you can help them - the Sussex Wildlife Trust have some great articles and videos on there that will hopefully make you love and appreciate bees as much as this gal does.