World Bee Day 2019: Honey, we shrunk the (number of) bees, we must bring them back

With a sharp decline in the number of bees, the food supply in India is under direct threat.

Imagine living in a world without flowers or fruit or coffee or chocolate cake and strawberry ice cream. Imagine if all you could get on your pizza – is corn and mushrooms. No tomato sauce, no cheese, no peppers or any other yummy toppings. But thanks to the wonderful work of pollinators like bees, much of the food we eat and enjoy is made possible.

Over 75 percent of the world’s flowering plants are estimated to require a pollinator to reproduce. More than one of every three bites of food we eat or beverages we drink are courtesy of pollinators. They are vital to creating and maintaining the ecosystems that we humans and animals rely on for food and shelter. They facilitate reproduction in 90 percent of the world’s flowering plants.

Without pollinators…life would not be so easy.

What is pollination and why is it important?

We all learned about pollination in school — when the pollen grain moves from the anther (the male part) of the flower to the stigma (the female part) pollination occurs. This is the first step in a reproduction process that produces seeds, fruits and the next generation of plants. If most of the earth’s flowering plants need help with pollination, as in they need pollinators to help them reproduce and survive, imagine a world without pollination or pollinators — we the human race and all of Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems would have difficulty surviving.

World Bee Day 2019: Honey, we shrunk the (number of) bees, we must bring them back

Honeybees are the world's top pollinators. Image credit: Fauna & Flora International

Why do pollinators do what they do?

Pollinators are animals – most often insects – that help facilitate the process of pollination. While most of us often think of honeybees when we think of pollinators, its not just bees that do all the hard work. Butterflies, birds, beetles, bats, wasps and even flies and ants are important for pollination.

In exchange of their very important work as pollinators -pollinators receive nectar and pollen from the flowers they visit. Sugary nectar provides pollinators with carbohydrates while pollen offers proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals

Not good news for pollinators

But unfortunately, pollinator populations are changing. Despite their importance, we humans take them for granted. The battle to co-exist between humans and our environmental eco-system is impacting the future of pollinators and our survival. Today across the world there is an alarming decline in pollinator populations. Increase in human population, pollution, changes in land use, misuse of chemicals, disease, global warming’s impact on changes in climatic patterns all contribute to a shrinking and shifting pollinator population.

And most impacted in this battle for survival is the world’s best pollinator – the honeybee.

The best pollinator in the world

Bees top the charts as the best pollinator according to many scientific studies. While flowers receive a wide range of pollinators – research has found that bees are most effective as pollinators for two reasons – they spend most of their life collecting pollen an important food source for them and they are most proficient in depositing pollen – a key for successful pollination.

When a bee lands on a flower, the sticky hairs present all over the bees' body attract pollen grains. Bees catch and carry the pollen back to their nest. But bees don’t just collect pollen from one flower – they visit many flowers before going home and this means that pollen from one flower is transferred to another flower of the same species by the bee. As this kind of pollen distribution – also known as cross-pollination is vital for plants to reproduce – bees are critical in the flower’s reproduction cycle.

Unfortunately, as pollinators decline across the world, the survival of the bee is threatened.

Bees are also suprisingly good mental mathematicians, according to a recent study. Image: Flickr

Bees are surprisingly good mental mathematicians, too, according to a recent study. Image: Flickr

India stands vulnerable  

The link between bees and human survival is different in India. In India, where over 60 percent of our population is dependent on agriculture, the decline of bees is even more frightening. Increasing population growth and declining agricultural productivity as a result of increased use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides together with changes in climatic patterns have created a scenario where our agriculture sector cannot feed and sustain its own population, especially the poor and the marginalised.

In the US and Europe, most pollinating bees are kept by humans. However, in India, the prime pollinator is the wild rock bee. With changes in land use patterns moving away from agriculture and forests to more industrial usage, bees and other pollinators like all wild animals are losing their natural habitat. As pollinators, especially bees decline in India – our food supply is under threat.

What we can do to help bees

There are many ways we can help bees in your own small way.

Plant bee-friendly plants in your garden or your building societies. It is our moral and public responsibility to sustain the eco-systems critical for these insects.

Encourage and support organic farmers who do not chemicals on their crops by buying from local organic farmer markets.

Spread the word about the importance of bees and their declining population and teach farmers to keep honey bees, maintain colonies and use them for pollination. While most farmers understand the role bees play in reproduction and crop productivity, they don’t realise the link between their pesticide use and bee decline. It’s a simple skill that can easily be taught.

The author is the founder and CEO of Under The Mango Tree, an innovative and award-winning social enterprise that supports Indian farmers with incomes and improving crop productivity through indigenous beekeeping, and marketing the honey collected directly to consumers. Since its inception in 2010, it has impacted over 25,000 lives, improving rural incomes by over 30 percent. 

 

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