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Bee colonies

March 12, 2011

Bees are vital to agriculture. They pollinate more than 70 of the 100 crops which make up 90 percent of the world's food supply. That's why experts are wary of declines in bee colonies across the globe.

A bee pollenating a flower
Bees are needed to pollinate a number of different types of foodImage: AP

With the earth's population speeding towards a record of 9 billion people by 2050, humans are likely to become increasingly reliant on some of nature's smaller helpers to secure a nutritious and diverse food supply.

Bees pollinate more than 70 of the 100 crops that make up 90 percent of the world's food supply. But they have been declining in numbers since the 1960s, and recently problems have been spreading to areas which were previously unaffected.

Chinese and Japanese beekeepers have been confronted with abrupt losses in their colonies. As have those along the Egyptian Nile in Africa, although the rest of the continent has been spared. North America also suffered losses in 2004, according to a report released Thursday by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

According to UNEP spokesman Nick Nuttall, the situation is the result of a number of factors. The report's authors found human activity is destroying flowering plants, wild bees' primary source of food. Herbicides are likely contributing to this problem.

A combine in a field
More sustainable agriculture practices would better allow wild bees to flourishImage: dpa

Bees' abdomens contain crystals with lead in them, meaning they could be confused by electromagnetic fields from structures such as power lines. Air pollution makes it difficult for them to locate flowers based on scent. Other problems include parasites and pests spread by global commerce, according to UNEP.

Managed hives take precedence

In the United States, farmers rely on more than two million colonies which are trucked across the continent. Each truck may contain as many as 20 million bees. But the problem, according to Nuttall, is that those colonies are susceptible to mass dying from lack genetic diversity.

"It's clear that this phenomenon is spreading," Nuttall told Deutsche Welle. "The question is how far is it going to go. We seem to think it might be cheaper to manage lots of beehives. In fact, the services nature provided in the first place are probably much more cost effective than trying to replicate them by managing large numbers of bees in hives."

To reverse the effects human activity have had on bee populations, agricultural planners need to better manage landscapes plant more flowering vegetation next to crop fields. Also, more prudence is needed during the application of pesticides, which can become combined in ecosystems and create highly poisonous 'cocktail effects,' according to the UNEP report. While managed bee hives can easily be moved to safety, wild bee populations are sure to bear the full brunt of any pollution.

Bees and a beekeeper in the US
Bees which are trucked from field to field may lack genetic diversityImage: AP

"It is clear we need to restore the services of the countryside," Nuttall said. "By restoring the habitats of bees, you're also restoring the conditions for many, many more small, humble life-forms which do extraordinary jobs and enable human beings to live and thrive in the first place."

Situation not hopeless

Nuttall added humanity needs to think about how to deal with the "damage we are doing to our life support system."

"All the scientific evidence is that we're not yet at the point where we will see major declines in crop harvests, but we're getting quite close to it in some places," he said. "I don't think there's ever going to be a point of zero or no return, but it's clear that we've got many, many factors at work."

An estimated 20,000 species of flowering plants could become extinct within the next decades, according to the report.

Author: Gerhard Schneibel

Editor: Sean Sinico

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