On her blog Mehr als Grünzeug, our dear friend and author Jenni has dedicated herself to the question of how we can live more sustainably and leave the world a little bit better than we found it. Today, on the Wildling Blog, she takes us to the world of bees.
In Germany, bees have risen to become a symbol for the decline in biodiversity (and by extension, for the climate crisis). What is it that makes these animals so special – and what can we do to protect them?
Without bees, our world would be a different place. We are only beginning to understand just how different it would be, at a time in which we are already facing this planet’s sixth major species extinction – this time caused by humans. Some 28% of all known plant and animal species are currently regarded as endangered, with new ones being added all the time and no end in sight.
People often have the impression that the climate crisis is the greatest challenge of this century. That is true, but it’s not the whole truth: The climate crisis is linked to a multitude of other crises that we are experiencing right now or that may yet come our way. These include, of course, the coronavirus crisis, as well as the mounting threat of more frequent pandemics as the habitat for wildlife shrinks, making zoonotic diseases that much more likely. As the Earth continues to heat up, social and economic crises will also intensify – as will the crisis facing the planet’s biodiversity.
To invoke an oft-cited image: It’s not just the house that’s on fire, the entire village is in flames. And just as the polar bear on the ice floe has become a global symbol for the climate crisis, a humble insect has emerged as the symbol of biodiversity in Germany: the bee.
Not all bees are alike
When we speak of “bees,” we are usually referring to Apis mellifera, the common honey bee, which we’re familiar with thanks to countless drawings, animations, and photos, and which we’ve grown to love, especially in recent years. But it is by no means the only species of bees. Bees are broadly classified into honey bees and wild bees – although this differentiation has no biological relevance. It is made purely to illustrate that the domesticated honey bee isn’t the only bee species out there.
Image: Mehr als Grünzeug
Beekeepers know that honey bees aren’t cuddly animals and will always be wild in a way – and yet they do differ from wild bee species. For instance, there are many species of wild bees that are solitary (that is, they don’t live in colonies) and live on the ground. They don’t produce as much honey as the honey bee, but as pollinators they are much more effective: Nature can cope without the honey bee – which is now selectively bred – but it cannot survive without wild bees. Of the 560 species of wild bees that live in Germany, nearly half have been placed on the Red List of Threatened Species.
In fact, evidence suggests that an overabundant honey bee population is detrimental to wild bees – in part by virtue of their sheer number, but also because honey bees don’t favor specific food sources. Things are different for wild bees. Some species are as connected to “their” plant as a key to a lock – both sides benefit from each other’s existence, and only that one kind of plant can feed that particular kind of wild bee. Against the backdrop of the growing depletion and desolation in farmland, this is a particularly precarious state of affairs. What’s more, wild bees reproduce at a much slower rate than honey bees and are particularly susceptible to the diseases spread by honey bees. This is one of the reasons why Germany’s Nature And Biodiversity Conservation Union (Nabu) calls for a minimum distance of at least 1.5 kilometers between honey bee hives and nature reserves – a requirement that is also backed by emerging scientific evidence.
While wild bees (which also include bumblebees) deserve our special attention, that doesn’t mean that honey bees should be sidelined in our conservation efforts. When asking what we can do concretely, we just have to make a slight distinction between honey bees and wild bees. As a general rule, whatever is beneficial to the honey bee is also good for its wild relatives (and also for a host of other animal species).
What do bees do for us?
All that talk about busy bees certainly has its place: By the time it has collected the nectar required to produce a half a kilo of honey, a bee has visited some 10 million plants – all while spreading pollen from flower to flower. Bees (alongside other insects) carry out a tremendous service when it comes to pollination, a service our agriculture sector in particular, and in turn our supermarket shelves, depend on.
While we could no doubt survive without bees, life would be far more monotonous and we would have to eat unsweetened gruel on a very, very frequent basis: A whopping 88% of the world’s flowering plants depend on animal pollinators in order to reproduce successfully. These pollinators play a part in the yield and quality of a number of crops, especially fruits and vegetables. The honey bee contributes its own share of about 30–50% to the work of the wild pollinators.
Image: Mehr als Grünzeug
Wild bees alone account for between 15% and 30% of the pollination effort that goes into the foods found in the American diet. These include nuts, grains, fruits, vegetables, oils – and indirectly – animal products (since the animals are raised on insect-pollinated feed). Collectively, pollinating insects also significantly boost the yield of crops that don’t rely solely on their help, thereby contributing to 35% of global food production.
“In terms of world market prices, pollination [not just by bees; ed. note] creates somewhere between €250 billion and €600 billion in value every year,” notes Josef Settele, one of the authors of the World Biodiversity Council’s current Global Status Report (IPBES 2019). While putting a price tag on it might not be the most appropriate way to present the case for protecting species, the environment, and the climate – and by extension, our own species (aren’t we actually perpetuating the very argument that got us into this dilemma in the first place?) – it’s also true that ecosystem services are very difficult to calculate. That said, many people like numbers because they make complicated issues seem easier to categorize – and anything that can be used to help draw attention to the massive loss we will suffer when bees (most species, that is) have disappeared from the Earth is a good thing to start with. Even if our overriding goal is to create a new ethical standard with respect to nature.
Curious about more info? In this article, Jenni reveals what is currently making life difficult for the bee and how we can help it with small actions in our everyday life.
Cover Image: Mehr als Grünzeug