Bees: The Pollination Crisis
The telltale signs of spring are finally here; leaves budding, flowers blooming and bees buzzing.
But wait. Are the bees buzzing as much as they should?
By now you're probably familiar with the concept that bees play a huge part in plant pollination – the fertilization process that help plants reproduce. Simply put, bees gather nectar from flowering plants to produce honey and along the way they inadvertently collect pollen on their fuzzy, electrostatic bodies.
In their travels from plant to plant in search of nectar, they manage to distribute the pollen from their bodies to the sex organs of the plants, in effect ensuring that the plant will be able to produce. Obviously there are a few more mechanics involved here, but basically put, a plant must be pollinated before it can produce fruit.
The buzz on bee depopulation
In recent years scientists have reported a significant decline in bee populations across the globe and most notably in North America. An estimated 40 to 60 percent of bees in the US have simply disappeared with little understanding of the causes. Scientists attribute the decline to pesticide use, monoculture practices, genetically modified crops, mites and a syndrome called Colony Collapse Disorder that many believe is linked to a combination of environmental factors and has mysteriously wiped out thousands of whole colonies.
Why do bees matter?
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), one third of the human food supply is dependent on pollination by bee species. Crops like apples, pears, berries, alfalfa and clover are entirely dependent on bee pollination, and by now we know that a disruption in even the smallest link in the food chain can cause major problems.
If bees were to disappear from the chain, some scientist forecast a massive ripple effect through ecosystems including plants, animals, food supplies, the economy and ultimately the human population. Even Einstein was quoted as saying, "If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live." The bottom line is simple: no bees, no plants, no animals, no people.
What we can do
It would seem that bees are acting as proverbial the canary in the coal mine – but what exactly are they telling us and what can we do to stop their decline?
A few things we can do to support bee survival is to provide healthy bee habitats in our own backyards. A few tips for a successful bee garden:
• Stop using harmful pesticides and look for organic pest control solutions
• Plant diverse varieties of native flowering plants in your garden
• Avoid mulch to allow bees to tunnel and live in your garden's soil
• Leave flowering weeds in your garden as much as possible
• Plants flowers that bloom from spring to fall to provide ongoing pollen and nectar resources
• Bee-friendly garden plants include asters, clover, marigolds, poppies, sunflowers, zinnias, clematis, dahlias, geraniums and more.
Unfortunately, it's going to take more than good backyard gardening practices to save the bees. Thankfully, on April 21, CNN reported that a British consortium committed to spend $14.5 million on research into the causes of the decline in bees and other insect pollinators (like butterflies and moths). Hopefully, more North American organizations like the Agriculture Department and the USDA will commit more resources to helping solve the bee problem, but in the meantime, be kind to your local bees and help spread the word about why bees are so important to our environment.