Originally posted to the Irish Executives Bloggers in Residence on 22nd October 2015
I have always thought of bees as one of those things that could trigger a human catastrophe if they disappeared, up there on a scale of destruction with the loss of the Amazon Rain Forest or the various warm sea currents around the globe. The concept being that certain things we take for granted could disappear and start an irreversible chain reaction that would make the planet uninhabitable for humans.
The recently published “All Ireland Pollinator report” prompted me to investigate the importance of bees to our agriculture and our existence in general
The first results of the investigation produced the following quote attributed to Einstein
“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”
A pretty stark prediction by someone as eminent as Einstein (I will return to this later) is a serious call to action especially when the facts suggest that we are on the slippery slope to pollinator extinction. So, with The Sword of Damocles in the air further research on the current position of pollinators was needed.
Globally bee keepers are reporting a decline of between 30% and 50% in the honeybee population. In Ireland it is estimated that 30% of bee species face extinction including three species specific to Ireland. The EU Commission report on 2000 species of bees shows that 9% are threatened with extinction.
So what’s causing the decline? The main and most obvious cause is due to habitat loss of hedgerows and wild meadows as a result of intensification in farming and the increase in the use of pesticides. There is also the issue of intensive farming of the honeybee as the main commercial pollinator of choice. It is the farmed honeybee that is most under attack from pesticides and colony diseases. Another cause of loss of habitat is urban development and climate change
So, is Einstein’s prediction correct, when the bees go, we have four years left? Well, first off, Einstein never said any such thing. This looks like a classic case of a useful quote’s being invented and put into the mouth of a famous person to add credence. (pic is photo shopped). There is some justification for using this kind of comment going back as far a Darwin, who mentioned the importance of the connection between bees and man. Since then some version of the importance of bees to our continued existence has been regularly quoted and obviously expanded until the quote arbitrarily attributed to Einstein eventually evolved. (Darwin, Evolution…..)
Interestingly the first version of the exact quote comes from Ireland when, in 1966 “The Irish Beekeeper” printed a remark attributed to Einstein that gave a time limit for mankind quoting Abeilles et fleurs.
“Professor Einstein, the learned scientist, once calculated that if all bees disappeared off the earth, four years later all humans would also have disappeared. Abeilles et fleurs, June, 1965.”
(full story from an investigation by “Quote Investigator” )
The most “Authoritative study” I could find on the subject concluded that primary food production, and especially our staple foods, is independent of insect pollination. Sixty percent of global food production comes from crops that do not depend on animal pollination, although our diet would be dramatically impacted upon as 35% of crops depend on pollinators.
Thirty five percent is still a significant number and bees and other pollinating insects play an essential role in our ecosystems. The annual worldwide economic value of bees’ pollination work has been estimated around €265 billion. So from a purely economic point of view we need the bees.
While our imminent extinction following the loss of bees is not a reality, we do need to make some changes to protect the 35% of our food chain that is dependent on pollinators and particularly bees.
Apart from our food, the psychological impact on humans if flowers disappeared might be a bigger problem than the loss of certain foodstuffs. Who has not enjoyed the pleasure of a summer afternoon in a garden awash with colour from flowers and the lazy hum of bees as they gather nectar in the warm, heavy sunshine?
What about honey and all the wonderful benefits it bestows on our daily existence? Bees are the only insect that produces food eaten by man and honey is the only food that includes all the substances necessary to sustain life, including enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and water; and it’s the only food that contains “pinocembrin”, an antioxidant associated with improved brain functioning.
So, we know we have a problem, it may not be as big as some of the scaremongering types would like us to believe but it is a problem that needs addressing. Of course one of the most important things about fixing problems is knowing that we have one in the first place. Now that we know, what are we going to do about it?
The actions set out in the “All Ireland Pollinator Plan” are certainly a good place to start.
Their main recommendations are
Plant patches of urban areas with wildflowers.
Incorporate pollinator friendly plants into gardens.
Allow lawn weeds to flower.
Incorporate wildflower strips within cropped fields.
Allow field margins to grow wild
Incorporate clovers into grass-dominated swards.
Incorporate artificial solitary bee nests into urban gardens
Farmers can help by taking on board the replanting of biodiversity friendly hedgerows and wild flower strips between fields. There is a major question about the effect of the pesticides used in intensive farming on pollinators and while there is some argument about this, there certainly seems to be some cause and effect so farmers need to consider embracing more ecological management systems for crop management. The “BurrenLIFE programme” is a good example of farming methods in harmony with the environment
Government and local authorities can help by establishing bee friendly habitats along roadways and other public areas.
Individual householders can help by considering bee friendly initiatives for our gardens. Some good suggestions in “Gardening & Bees”
There are a huge amount of articles to read on the relationship between humans and bees. I liked this one by Eimear Chaomhánach a lot “The Bee, its Keeper and Produce, in Irish and other Folk Traditions”
Bees have been around for millions of years, by all accounts they are a very resilient life form so I don’t think we are in any immediate danger of destroying them completely and we certainly are not facing a four years to extinction scenario for the human race but perhaps recognising and addressing the problems our bee partners are having will lead us to a more sustainable way of managing our interaction with our mother, Earth.
Brendan Palmer is a Director of Electronic Recycling
Unit 20, Jamestown Business Pk. Finglas, Dublin 11