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Nature · Economy

Wanted: 7 billion individual bees for Europe

January 16th, 2014
in:Nature, Economy
by:Itai Lahat
located in:United Kingdom, Belgium
tags:bees, Europe

The beginning of the new year has brought with it some bad news. It is not the polar vortex or the polar bears of Scandinavia emerging far too early from hibernation. It is not even the heat waves of Australia that caused one hundred thousand bats to fall from the sky. It is bees, or more, the lack of them.

A new study into honey bee pollination supply and demand, published in the journal PLoS One, suggests that there are 13 million fewer colonies than are actually needed to pollinate Europe’s agricultural crops. As a result, honey bees are pollinating only two thirds of crops across Europe and in Britain the situation is particularly serious, with researchers suggesting that there are only enough honeybees to meet 25 percent of the demand for pollination.

For now, the only reason Europe isn’t facing worse consequences for its honey bee deficit is the fact that wild pollinators are picking up the slack. That’s not, however, something we should rely on — at least according to lead researcher Professor Potts. Here’s how he described the honeybee crisis to The Guardian: „We face a catastrophe in future years unless we act now.“

„Wild pollinators need greater protection. They are the unsung heroes of the countryside, providing a critical link in the food chain for humans and doing work for free that would otherwise cost British farmers £1.8bn to replace.“

It’s not just the usual suspects of pesticides and diseases that are being blamed for the deficit. Declines in bee population have coincided with an increase in demand due to a growth in the planting of oilseed rape and sunflowers for biofuels, crops which replaced previously wind-pollinated cereals.

The good news belongs to the end of last year. Since December the 1, the European Union has set in place a two-year ban for three of the most widely used pesticides in the world: clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam — collectively called neonicotinoids.

The most useful thing about the EU ban is not so much that it’s a ban, but that it’s an opportunity to see how honeybees are affected when one specific factor of the landscape they move in is removed. Unfortunately, there’s a chance there might not be enough time for any effect to reveal itself: As Dave Goulson, of the University of Sussex points out, the ban started on Dec 1, but the seeds for 2014′s harvest were soaked and planted months ago and neonicotinoids can persist in the soil for years.

The United States EPA still won’t follow Europe’s lead and suspend or ban the use of neonicotinoid pesticides believed to be killing honeybees and other pollinators, to the horror of beekeepers and environmentalists, who are suing the federal government over its inaction. But at least the agency is doing something. On Wednesday, EPA announced it was awarding $460,000 in funding for research into integrated pest management, to help reduce the use of pesticides and lower risks to bees — “all while controlling pests and saving money”.

Article written by:
Itai Lahat
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