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A few difficult questions about bees

A few difficult questions about bees

25 beehives housing somewhere around 400,000 bees were installed in the new University Apiary, the centre of which is located in the JU Botanical Garden. Its inception is a great opportunity to discuss the dramatic situation these fluffy insects have found themselves in. We asked Dr Karolina Kuszewska from the JU Institute of Environmental Sciences to tell us more.

The facts speak from themselves: in one year (April 2015–April 2016), American beekeepers have lost 44% of their colonies. In the years 1961–2007, the number of bee colonies maintained by man has dropped by 25% in Europe, and by 50% in Northern America. In 2013 alone, England lost 34% of its bee colonies.

We recommend you take a look at the fantastic photographs of bees made as part of the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab project!

You can also check out the article about the University Apiary

When we spoke to Dr Kuszewska, we played the devil’s advocate, asking if there's any evidence that people might not be responsible for mass bee deaths and other natural phenomena.

Piotr Żabicki: What are the most important causes of the dwindling of bee population worldwide? Are scientists sure about them?

Karolina Kuszewska: There have been many extensive research studies trying to answer these questions, but so far it’s difficult to unequivocally explain the phenomenon. It is believed that there might be several causes of mass bee deaths, with each only aggravating the others. One of them is the overuse of pesticides, particularly at inappropriate times or in increased concentration.

The decrease in biodiversity also has adverse effects on the bee population. Damaging the habitat of the insects results in the disappearance of flowers – important sources of food.

Varroa destructor (adult female), parasitic mite infesting honeybee colonies (Apis mellifera). Photo: Gilles San Martin /Flickr, CC BY-SA

Another detrimental factor is varroosis, a disease caused by the Varroa mites (Varroa destructor). There’s no surefire way of treating it – even though beekeepers can cure a single colony, its inhabitants may still become infected by coming into contact with other sick bees.

Are we sure that we humans are responsible for mass bee deaths? Isn’t it a natural stage in the cycle of changes in nature?

The decline of bee population is mostly caused by man. First and foremost, we’re responsible for the shrinking and fragmentation of their habitats and reducing biodiversity, which is one of the causes I’ve talked about earlier. It’s the same with pesticides, which I’ve also already mentioned. Although we can’t be sure what would’ve happened to the bees if we weren’t here, we know that our impact on the environment is so great that every natural change occurs more rapidly and drastically than it normally would.

In the last several decades, the natural processes we observe have become very difficult to discern from those initiated or reinforced by mankind. This is true for all living organisms, not only bees. The most important thing to remember is that without pollinators, obtaining certain kinds of crops (vegetables, fruit etc.) would be very difficult, and in some cases even impossible.

Are there any benefits of placing beehives in cities? Shouldn’t we focus on rural areas?

Violet carpenter bee (Xylocopa violacea), a wild bee, found also in Poland. Photo: Bernard Dupont, CC BY-SA

Bees have a positive effect on all kinds of plants, not only in strictly agricultural sense. It’s estimated that around 75% of our total food is in one way or another derived from insect-pollinated plants. The amount of labour the insects perform for us is valued at 250 billion dollars annually.

Naturally, honeybees are not the only pollinators. Solitary bees and butterflies, for instance, also perform this function. However, cities, being a highly transformed and fragmented environment, are far less likely to become the homes of pollinators other than honeybees.

Although cities are vastly different from any natural habitat, they’re not all concrete, steel, and glass. They’re also parks, gardens, allotments, and commons. It’s a known fact that communing with nature is very beneficial for us from the psychological point of view. Nobody wants to live in a bleak concrete housing project. Bees can improve the quality of our parks, increase biodiversity and help other living organisms to survive – through pollination of plants, bees provide sustenance for animals that thrive on fruit. Indeed, urban beekeeping has many advantages.

You mentioned that honeybees are not the only pollinators. Couldn’t they take over if the bees will be gone?

There are many pollinators aside form honeybees, like bumblebees, solitary bees, and butterflies. In fact, there are over 450 species of pollinators in Poland alone. Unfortunately, their numbers are on a steady decrease. The reasons for this are akin to those pertaining to the honeybees. It may well turn out that there will be too little of them to effectively perform this task. On a side note, honeybees are a good indicator of the quality of environment – if they live somewhere, it typically means other pollinators do, too.

Pollinating robots designed at the Wyss Institute, Harvard University

It’s also worth mentioning that certain plants can only be pollinated by certain types of insects. For example, because of the different structure of their mouthparts, butterflies usually specialise in pollinating different kinds of plants than bees.

With all that you said, perhaps we should start replacing bees with pollinating micro-robots?

As I said before, the worth of the insects’ labour is estimated at 250 billion dollars per year. We’re not paying anything for this. Pollinating robots would be expensive (at least early on) and would require regular maintenance. We’d also need millions of them. I imagine they wouldn’t be a good source of food for animals, particularly birds. I’m not saying the whole idea is nonsense – there may come a very sad day we’ll be forced to seriously consider introducing this kind of technology – but for now, I would suggest focusing on protecting what we have and appreciating the work these little creatures do for us, even if they’re not doing it intentionally.

Dr Karolina Kuszewska is a member of the Behavioural Ecology Group at the JU Institute of Environmental Sciences. Her research is focused on social division of bees and their reproductive strategies. She received international recognition for her paper entitled Swarming Generates Rebel Workers in Honeybees, published in Current Biology (22, 2012).

Sources:

Original text: www nauka.uj.edu.pl

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