To bee or not to bee

It’s well know that bees are in trouble, but the extent of the problem is genuinely staggering. All bee populations are in decline, and there no wild honey bees left. In the space of just 12 months the rate of bee colony collapse (BCC) has more than doubled from 16% to 34%. Obviously, this has dire consequences not only for humans but all life on the planet. One third of all items eaten by humans comes from pollinated food, and the vast majority of this is pollinated by bees. Bizarrely, some people are very bothered about the precise economic value of global bee pollination, but can we really put a figure on this essential and absolutely priceless activity? Nonetheless, a monetary value seems to make anything more or less important depending on the “what’s it worth” price tag. So it’s estimated that bees contribute over £500 million to the UK economy, and to replace this totally free service would cost at least £1.8 billion. In parts of China the loss of bee pollination is so bad that cheap labour is utilised to do the job manually.

There are numerous theories to explain BCC, but the most likely culprits are intensive farming methods and the use of insecticides. There is overwhelming evidence against the neonicotinoid pesticide group of systemic insecticides (currently the most widely used pesticides in the world). Unsurprisingly, the manufacturers of these products refute any suggestion that they might be responsible. Also, British farming and the UK government are opposed to any ban on neonicotinoids. Esteemed Environment Minister Owen Paterson has stated that the scientific case for a ban has been “grossly exaggerated”. Well, at least he didn’t claim that the bees “have moved the goalposts”.

Industrialised honey production has become a primary method in several countries. In the US industrial honey accounts for over 45% of all honey consumption in America. Have you ever wondered why all those breakfast cereals include honey as a major ingredient? However, many US beekeepers make more money from ‘pollination services’ than honey production. California produces a third of the USA’s total fruit & veg production, and the state’s agriculture business is worth $44.7 billion per year. Each winter and spring, 3,000 trucks drive across the US carrying 40 billion bees to California’s Central Valley. This area contains 60 million almond trees, and represents 80% of the global almond crop. Buying in bees is expensive, with the almond farmers spending $250 (£150) million per year for this service. Hiring a single hive will cost about $180 (£108). The whole process demonstrates a mind-boggling stupidity which repeats itself throughout all methods of intensive farming, and the manufacture of cheap meat. In California the mass production techniques, and the overuse of insecticides have decimated bee populations. So instead of acknowledging the fundamental causes, the human solution is to industrialise bee pollination, which in turn creates even more problems.

California is also in the middle of a devastating drought. Millions of dollars of federal aid have been promised by the Obama administration, with $5 million specifically allocated to introduce “water conservation practices”. Hmm, how about removing all those subsidies for the ridiculous amounts of water used by the US meat industry? Even the California Beef Association has admitted that 3,700 litres are required to produce a single kilo of beef (as opposed to just 77 litres to produce 1 kilo of maize.) In fact, in the US meat would cost about $77 (£46) per kilo if the water used by the American meat industry wasn’t subsidised by the government.

Paul Freestone 

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