On 21 November, Surviving the Century at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) asks how dependent human health is on the health of the animal populations around us. Four speakers will each put the case for an animal species that we simply can’t survive without. Here Martha Kearney puts the case for bees. What do you think? Add your comments at the bottom.
Can you imagine a world without bees? For many people that would simply mean a more boring breakfast as their toast would be deprived of honey. Delicious though that treat may be, the disappearance of bees would be far more significant than the loss of their amazing crop. The contribution made by honey bees in the pollination of crops is of critical importance to human food security and diversity, and the pollination of many other plant species helps to maintain wild plants and, consequently, wildlife diversity. This is often overlooked, yet honey bees – together with other pollinating insects – are essential to human survival.
In the UK it has been estimated that all insect pollinators contribute more than £400 million to the agricultural economy at farm gate prices. This probably represents in excess of £1.5 billion once the food reaches supermarkets. Honey bees are a significant contributor to this figure, and it has been suggested that this one species could contribute up to 50 per cent of the pollination value. In the USA it is estimated approximately one-third of the total human diet is derived directly or indirectly from insect-pollinated plants (fruits, legumes and vegetables). The almond crop is entirely dependent on honey bee pollination. Without honey bees, there would be no almonds. Numerous other crops are 90 percent dependent on honey bee pollination. Some of those crops include apples, avocados, blueberries, cherries, cranberries and sunflowers. Other crops such as cucumbers, kiwi fruit, melons and vegetables are also pollinated by honey bees.
The threat to bees is now well known and may well be the canary in the coalmine when it comes to our environment. While their demise is largely due to the varroa mite, bees have also suffered because of a loss of habitat, in particular lack of wildflowers. I would also maintain that the bee has through the centuries been an extraordinary inspiration to humankind, which has been expressed in poetry and art: just look around at how many symbols of bees there are in everyday life, from beer cans to cosmetics. Bees are vital to humanity.
Martha Kearney is one of the BBC’s most respected journalists and currently presents The World and One on Radio Four and The Review Show on BBC 2. She is also a prominent and passionate apiarist and fronted a campaigning BBC4 documentary, Who Killed The Honey Bee?, in 2009 to raise awareness of the plight of the world’s bee populations.