If agricultural crops in Australia were failing, and farmers were forced choose just one crop species to focus their time and money on, which crop would you pick? Grapes for wine? Avocados? Watermelon?

This is a ‘worst case’ scenario presented to some farmers, not only in Australia, but worldwide. The reason behind this dramatic, yet possible future decision is a small, often disliked, yet vital species. Bees.

Honey Bee

These tiny, hard working creatures, provide us with what is termed an ‘ecosystem service’ by pollinating our crops as they carry out their day to day activities. Due to this free pollination service, which equates to billions of dollars each year of man-hours, we have become reliant on bees for a great deal of our agricultural success.

According to a recent risk assessment, without bees approximately 60% of crop species would fail.

A decline in both honeybee and native bee species has continued over the years, causing an increasing fear of the loss of our food security. Additional growing fears include the loss of plant diversity, native habitat, and honey, just to name a few.

Much of the blame has been targeted at insecticides used in agriculture, in particular neonicotinoids. These chemicals have been identified to affect bee’s brains, causing them to become disorientated to the extent they can no longer find the hive. Neonicotinoids also contaminate the pollen used as a food source within the hive, which can kill or weaken the colony. This is often referred to as ‘colony collapse disorder’ (CCD), as the colony does indeed collapse. Rachel Sullivan from CSIRO states “the big pesticide manufacturers claim they can find no evidence of these problems”. Could this be because the cumulative effects, and combination of different insecticides imposed upon bees are not included in the testing?

Regardless of the answer, insecticides are not the only threat to bee populations.

As the human population is expanding, we are destroying essential food, and habitat for bees. There are thousands of bee species worldwide, of which two-thirds live underground and rely on undisturbed soil as a nest site. Others species require spaces such as tree hollows or dried grasses. The combined effect of both anthropogenic and natural processes projects quite a bleak future for bees.

Our growing fear of food security loss has resulted in numerous studies and initiatives trying to solve the bee decline problem. Ron Smith, from Farm Press identifies the dilemma from the farmer’s perspective. “Farmers use approved pesticides, at approved rates, and in accordance with approved application methods to protect valuable field and tree crops from damaging pests”.

Farmer’s work hard to protect the crops that society relies on as a food source, and they also require the bees to pollinate these crops. As a solution, farmers stated if they knew when the bees were active in the fields, spraying schedules could be altered. Others were quick to reply, stating this method may not reduce the risk, as residual remains after spraying. It was agreed that more research is required.

There is also the problem of invasive species, hive beetles, and mites, which kill the bees from within their hive, and this was solved by creating a pesticide which kills the problem species without harming the bees. However, research has found that whilst not killing the bees in the hive, it acts as a stress on the bees, and also kills certain species of wild Australian native bees. Now we are posed with the question ‘is the use of the pesticide worth the risk to the native bees?’

Since we can indeed live without honey (even though it is not a desirable outcome), why not use wild pollinators to assist the honeybees in agricultural pollination?

Australia is home to 1600 native bee species, and the results from a study in ‘Science’ states “overall, wild insects pollinated crops more effectively, and an increase in wild insect visitation enhanced fruit sets by twice as much as an equivalent increase in honeybee visitation”.

Whilst wild pollinators have proven effective, the problem lies with getting them to breed in large numbers, as they are more solitary than the honeybee and have different requirements for breeding. According to ‘Combating bee pollinator decline’ a publication by Rachel Sullivan, getting native bees to breed in large numbers is possible, but not yet up to standards.

In 2009 when the news of colony collapse disorder (CCD) struck Robert Wood, Radhika Nagpal and Gu-Yeon Wei from Harvard University, they created ‘Robobees’. These intricate, miniature robots the size of bees, were designed to ‘think’ like bees (process environmental cues) and pollinate like bees. Upon releasing the detailed report ‘Flight of the robobees’ outlining how the bees work and their many advantageous uses, members of the general public, such as Andrew Degan identified concerns, stating “what if the robots were slightly altered electronically and released as a colony of thousands to spread deadly bacteria, virus, or fungi?”

While many argue on the solution to pollinator declines, local communities and councils have focused on what residents in the urban environment can do to assist.

Along came ‘urban beekeeping’. Residential gardens, rooftops, or even balconies have been proven effective in providing bees with the necessities of food, water, and shelter. Beehives have been implemented in community gardens, native trees are being planted in yards, and there is a growing trend in urban beekeeping, with assistance being offered in many parts of Australia. As the threat to our food security increases, local Australians are recognising the important need to support our bees, and are taking action. Why not help the bees that are helping us? It can be as simple as planting a native tree.

Information on urban beekeeping can be found by contacting your local beekeeping association and also from the urban beehive groups such as The Urban Beehive.

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