The oldest love affair in history is between the bee and the flower. It began more than 100m years ago, when nature devised a more efficient way than winds for plants to procreate. About 80% of plant species now use animals or insects to carry pollen grains from the male part of the plant to the female part. The plants developed flowers. Their perfumed scent, colourful displays and sweet nectar are all designed to woo pollinators.
Over time, 25,000 or so species (we still don’t know exactly how many) of bee have evolved globally to play Cupid to specific flowering plants and trees: their short life cycle perfectly synchronised with the blooming of the flowers. On each visit they refuel with nectar, collect pollen to feed their young and in the process become a messenger of love.
But nature’s great lovers are going through a rocky patch, from which they may not recover. It’s in all our interests that this age-old romance endures because about one in three mouthfuls we eat depends on bee pollination, including most fruits and vegetables, nuts, herbs, spices, oil crops, as well as coffee. Together they supply a major proportion of nutrients in the human diet. In addition, fodder crops, plant-derived medicines such as aspirin and morphine, and fibres such as cotton are all bee-pollinated. That’s not to forget that many of the trees that are the lungs of the planet and absorb carbon from the atmosphere are bee pollinated.
Many of the 250 bumblebee species worldwide, whose furry coats and round bodies allow them to fly at cool temperatures, are in drastic decline. Nearly one in four European bumblebee species face extinction; in North America more than a quarter are in decline. Last week, a study reported a decline over a 115-year period that is “consistent with a mass extinction within a few decades” in areas where temperatures are getting hotter. It is just the latest in a long list of scientific papers cataloguing the demise of bees.
By making the landscape inhabitable to native wild bees, farmers have become increasingly reliant on managed European honeybees to pollinate
Much research has focused on the role of modern farming. The vast majority of flowering meadows that once fed bees a nutritious diet have been ploughed up, and hedgerows ripped out, to make way for huge fields of monoculture doused in a cocktail of chemicals that are harmful to bees and other insects. By making the landscape uninhabitable for native wild bees, farmers have become increasingly reliant on managed European honeybees to pollinate, even when these bees are less adapted to the flowers.
The starkest example of this is an area of California stretching about 400 miles and planted with almond trees. Around Valentine’s Day commercial beekeepers from all over the US arrive in the Central Valley with 2m beehives strapped on to articulated lorries. Over the next three weeks, as the trees blossom, honeybees will buzz from flower head to flower head and as a result the trees will produce 80% of the world’s almonds. The ancient Egyptians sailed their hives down the Nile to pollinate crops, but 3,000 years later this biggest migratory pollination event is stretching the love affair between bee and flower to its limits.
A little over a decade ago, I visited the Central Valley to find out why a third of the country’s honeybees had seemingly vanished. The mysterious phenomenon, dubbed “colony collapse disorder”, made headlines around the world. I interviewed beekeepers, farmers and scientists to discover the causes and was shocked by what I found. Miles upon miles of trees planted in a desert unable to sustain any life, the apian workforce being tricked into working harder and a month earlier than nature intended, when it was still cold, and beekeepers blaming the die-offs on a new class of neonicotinoid pesticides. The high bee mortality was eventually attributed to a lethal combination of poor nutrition, parasites, which weaken bees and spread disease, and pesticides (all a result of intensive agriculture). I warned that the honeybees’ demise would be ours too unless we changed the way we grew our food.
But despite the alarm bells from wildlife charities and conservation groups, farming has further intensified and commercial beekeepers in the US now routinely have to restock more than a third of their bees each year because of loses.
The almond acreage in the Central Valley has nearly doubled, partly fuelled by a huge demand for almond milk. In the US alone sales have grown by 250% in the past five years. The EU ban on the most widely used neonicotinoids was never adopted by the US government so the trees are still doused in a concoction of these and other toxic chemicals. And trials to use a native North American blue orchard mason bee – which is a much more efficient pollinator of fruit trees than the generalist honeybee – have stalled because they reproduce too slowly and in too few numbers to be deemed commercially viable. Almonds are big business, contributing $11bn to California’s GDP and providing more than 100,000 jobs. There is some good news: since 2013, almond farmers have planted 34,000 acres of wildflowers to provide additional bee food, but that is just 3.4% of the land. Why not pay farmers to blanket all of it with wildflowers? Farmers told me they were fearful the bees would spend more time visiting wildflowers than almond trees and yields would fall, although research shows the opposite.
The US-based Xerces Society has developed a bee-friendly kitemark for the small number of almonds grown with wildflowers and without pesticides. It’s a start, but we need all crops that bees pollinate to be grown in a bee-friendly way. As consumers, we must demand growers and retailers adopt bee-friendly methods, and be prepared to pay a premium for it. And as citizens we must lobby for farmers to be subsidised to work with, not against, nature. Otherwise this fragile romance on which our survival depends will wither and die and with it life as we know it.
• Alison Benjamin is editor of Guardian Society and a deputy Opinion editor