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What does the bee decline mean for civilisation?

There’s been an extraordinary decline in honey bee colonies around the world in recent years, and the reasons for the drop remain largely unknown. But why does this matter and how does it affect us?

Honey bees are the world’s most prolific pollinators of food crops, with one third of the food we eat every day relying on pollination. This includes fruit, vegetables, oils and nuts. Dr Anneke Veenstra, senior lecturer at Deakin University’s School of Life and Environmental Science, says as far as important species go, honey bees are at the top of the list. ‘They’re essential pollinators – pollinating 70 of the around 100 crop species that feed 90% of the world,’ says Dr Veenstra.

The honey bee decline

Overseas, honey bees are declining at an alarming rate. According to Dr Veenstra, one of the main reasons for the decline is the varroa mite (a parasite that attacks honey bees). ‘In America before 1988 there were five million hived honey bee colonies. Then the varroa mite arrived, and by 1993 that number had diminished to 2.5 million.’ Dr Veenstra says other possible reasons for the decline include the loss of flower meadows, climate change, and the use of pesticides.

In Australia

It’s estimated honey bee pollination contributes four to six billion to the Australian economy. For example, almond crops are 100% reliant on honey bees for pollination. According to Dr Veenstra, we’re fortunate that Australian honey bee colonies haven’t yet been affected. In fact, Australia is one of the last countries clear of the varroa mite. ‘Mites were detected on Asian honey bees in 2016 in Townsville. The bees and mites were eradicated and monitoring continues.’ Our New Zealand neighbours haven’t been so lucky. ‘Hives in New Zealand were infected by the varroa mite in 2000, and approximately 30 to 35% of hived colonies were eradicated,’ she says.

'They’re essential pollinators – pollinating 70 of the around 100 crop species that feed 90% of the world'

Dr Anneke Veenstra,
School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

The bee decline and us

A world without honey bees isn’t one that Dr Veenstra wants to contemplate. ‘We could struggle to sustain the global human population,’ she says. ‘If we lost all the plants that honey bees pollinate, the small animals that eat those plants will be negatively impacted resulting in fewer prey species for larger carnivorous animals and so on up the food chain.’ The amount of fresh produce available to us would also change significantly. ‘Walking into a supermarket would be a different experience, you could expect to find half the amount of fruit and vegetables that are available today,’ she says. 

What is being done to help?

The global community has started to realise the impact that a loss of the bee population will have on the world. In 2013 the European Union put in place a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, a class of pesticides that has proven to be harmful to the bee population. The US is looking into creating healthier and stronger super bees, through genetic modification and artificial insemination in the hope that the bees are strong enough to fight off disease and thrive. While locally, social enterprises such as Save the Bees Australia, are focused on raising awareness of the importance of bees, and in setting up inspection hives to lure in the varroa while keeping our local bees safe. What’s becoming apparent, according to Dr Veenstra, is ‘that bees may be small, but their contribution to life on Earth is huge’.

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Dr Anneke Veenstra
Dr Anneke Veenstra

Senior Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University
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