Without the pollination services that bees provide our tables would begin to look very bare. Bees are responsible for one-third of the food we eat. In Australia around two-thirds of European-introduced horticultural and agricultural crops are entirely dependent on bees.
Without bees, forget your apples, almonds, avocados, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbages, carrots, cherries, cucumbers, celery, macadamias, mangoes and more. All these fruits and vegetables exist only because the bees exist.
Bees are the planet’s circulation. As plants have no legs they’ve evolved in ways that enrol insects to be their ‘legs’: bees spread pollen from one plant to another, leading to seed development and fruit growth. Bees are the lynchpin that keep the whole web of life alive: if they stopped moving pollen around the planet, life as we know it would end.
The State Of Bees
As a result of human actions that do not honour and respect the bees, they are dying around the world. It is understood that over the last fifteen years Australian beehive numbers have deteriorated to less than fifty per cent of what they were twenty years ago. Reasons for this include: the importation of inferior honey, the hive beetle, bee diseases and insecticides.1
According to an annual survey conducted by a bee partnership that includes the USA Department of Agriculture, two out of five American honeybee colonies died in the past year (the second-highest rate in nine years). And in northern China, honeybees are almost extinct, forcing humans to hand pollinate crops to produce a harvest. Immediate action is needed.
Life In The Hive
To understand what is threatening the bees, it helps to understand life inside the hive. A honeybee colony is highly complex and finely tuned. Bees that exist together in a hive are referred to as one ‘organism’; the role they each play within that organism is strictly defined.
There is one queen, and there are worker bees (females) and drones (males). Each worker bee has a very specific role that changes depending on various stages of the six or so weeks of its life, including: keeping the hive clean; feeding the brood larvae and tending the queen; maintaining a constant temperature in the hive; grooming and feeding the younger bees; secreting wax to build comb; protecting the entrance; making honey from nectar; and, finally, becoming a forager for about twenty one days.
One of the most staggering examples of bee behaviour is the way they communicate to each other about where the pollen and nectar sources are. When a bee returns to the hive, after collecting pollen, it does what is called the ‘waggle’ dance: this is when it moves in a figure of eight shape, and does a little waggle in the middle. The relative angle of the dance to the sun tells the other bees in which direction the food source can be found; and the speed and duration of the waggle tells the distance to the source.
As you can see, bees are closely in tune with one another, and rely on complex communication strategies for survival. As bee carers we must be very careful not to interfere with this. For example, bees communicate by sending vibrations through the comb, which is why it is important to allow them to build natural comb.
So What Is Affecting Our Bees?
Rudolf Steiner, the father of biodynamics who, among many other things, had an interest in bees, predicted in 1923 that if humanity continued to cultivate honeybees by artificial means we would, within eighty years, witness the mass disappearance of the bees. Steiner warned against both meddling with the natural process of hive society and artificial manipulation of queen bees. There are many different ways to keep honeybees and, as with all forms of agriculture, the power of money and greed are pushing beekeepers into practices that endanger the health and life of the very thing they are trying to cultivate. In the interest of increasing honey production and providing pollination services to large monoculture crop growers, there are many practices that put the lives of bees and their hives at risk.
The following is a list of ways humanity is known to interfere with the natural process of bee life:
- raising of larva in separate quarters
- artificially raising queen bees from worker bee brood
- selecting bee populations for docility and deselecting for aggression, which reduces genetic vitality
- ’re-queening’ after one or two years, in contrast to the normal five or six year lifespan of a queen
- clipping of queens’ wings
- use of queen excluders, to prevent eggs being laid in inconvenient areas of the hive
- suppressing the swarm instinct
- removing ‘nuisance’ propolis to make hives more manageable
- using chemical control agents for disease and pests
- reusing old comb to increase honey production time for the bees
- breeding bees to be artificially larger and, therefore, more susceptible to disease, especially Varroa mite
- supplying sheets of wax foundation, so that bees don’t have to build their own
- moving hives over long distances at the will of human intention
- agricultural practices consisting of monocultures that wreak havoc on honeybee diets, limiting options once the dominant crop is no longer flowering
- use of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides
- keeping bees in boxes rather than a variety of shapes that they find in nature.
One of the most serious threats to honeybee populations is the use of neonicotinoids, also known as ‘neonics’. These are systemic insecticides used to kill a variety of crop-ravaging insects.
Neonics are water soluble, and are applied directly onto the soil where plants soak it up, or sprayed directly on seeds and plants. When neonics are used as a soil treatment they can remain in the soil for years. Because they are systemic they go into the tissue of the plant and stay there throughout its life. As the plant matures, the insecticide is present throughout all of its parts, killing the insects that eat it. When a honeybee arrives at a blossom to forage on pollen or nectar, contact with the flower exposes much of the bee’s body to the insecticide.
Repeated exposure to neonics affects the bee and the entire colony:
- bees find it harder to groom themselves, making them susceptible to disease and mites, and weakening their immune systems
- bees are unable to navigate back to the hive, and die in the field; worker bees supply the colony’s food, and if they don’t come back the colony can starve
- bees that do return to the hive are covered in contaminated pollen, thus contaminating the rest of the hive.11
The use of some neonics has been suspended in Europe for two years because of concerns that they affect bees. Yet in Australia, there are hundreds of products that contain neonics. These are widely available and sold in most major supermarket, hardware and gardening outlets.111 More worryingly, many non-organic seeds and seedlings have been treated with them but there is no labelling to advise this.
Ways To Be Bee-Friendly
The plight of bees might seem overwhelming and hopeless, but there are many things that we can do to protect the bees and to create an environment that will see them exist into the future.
- The best way to support bees is by buying and growing organic and biodynamic produce. The more we shift our farming systems to support diversity and living soils and plants, the better it will be for the health and wellbeing of all life, including us.
- Plant pesticide-free, bee-friendly and native plants in your garden for year round pollen and nectar. Take cuttings from established plants. Buy bulk organic seeds in a group and share them. If you love gardening, there’s a growing need for small, organic plant businesses.
- ‘Ask before you buy’ plants from your local nursery to ensure that they have not been treated with pesticides toxic to bees, and educate your nursery about the dangers to bees of such pesticides. Support smaller nurseries which have a closer relationship with their growers, and may be willing to be part of the ‘be bee-friendly‘ challenge. Let’s support the businesses which are environmentally aware and willing to listen to us.
- Let your vegetables go to flower and you’ll be surprised at how many pollinators visit your garden, even in the winter.
- Build a ‘bee hotel’ to encourage a range of life in your garden. Gardens contain many different species of insects, which benefit the garden and provide food for wildlife.
- Post a ‘pollinator friendly’ sign in your front garden to let your friends and neighbours know about what you’re doing to make a difference for wildlife pollinators, to inspire others to do the same.
- Hold a film night and watch a bee-friendly film to raise awareness of bees, and how beautiful and vital they are. See list below.
- Have a bee-friendly plant stall at your school’s fair, and ensure the plants are not treated with pesticides. This is a great way to raise awareness of bees, and to get the school involved in bee-friendly activities. It is legal for schools to have a beehive, and that’s a great way for children to learn about the wonder of bees, and how important they are for the ‘kitchen garden’ plot.
- Join the local beekeeping group and ask them to hold a natural beekeeping course.
- Get a bee-friendly hive of your own – it’s a great way to learn more about bees. Always put the health of the bees before the collection of honey.
List Of Resources
At the hive entrance by H Storch (Createspace 2014)
Bees by Rudolf Steiner (Steiner Books 1998)
Global hive: bee crisis and compassionate ecology by Horst Kornberger (School of Integral Art 2012)
Honeybee democracy by Thomas Seeley (Princeton University Press 2010)
The bee-friendly beekeeper: a sustainable approach by David Heaf (Northern Bee Books 2015)
The honey spinner: on the trail of ancient honey, vanishing bees and the politics of liquid gold by Grace Pundyk (Allen & Unwin 2008)
Top-bar beekeeping by Less Crowder and Heather Harrell (Chelsea Green 2012)
Toward saving the honeybee by Gunter Hauk (Bio-dynamic Farming & Gardening Association Inc., U.S. 2009)
Act For Bees, see www.actforbees.wordpress.com (including information about plants bees love)
Australian Honey Bee Industry Council, see www.honeybee.org.au
BackYardHive, see www.backyardhive.com
beekeeping naturally, see www.beekeepingnaturally.com.au
Natural Beekeeping Australia, see www.naturalbeekeeping.com.au
Natural Beekeeping Trust UK, see www.naturalbeekeepingtrust.org
‘Nine lectures on bees’ by Rudolf Steiner (1923), see wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/GA351/English/SGP1975/NinBee_index.html
Permi-apiculture – the Natural Beekeeping group, see www.naturalbeekeeping.org.au
Save Our Bees – Australia, see www.saveourbees.com.au
Save The Bees, see www.beethecure.com.au
Spikenard Farm Honeybee Sanctuary, see www.spikenardfarm.org/
The Barefoot Beekeeper, see www.biobees.com
For a map of local honey producers and stockists, see www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=zzplKTnSjGhs.k8sAyx_T0CJE&usp=sharing
‘The real value of pollination’, see www.honeybee.org.au/pdf/PollinationAwareFactSheet.pdf
Queen of the sun: what are the bees telling us? (2010)
More than honey (2012)
Honeybee blues (2009)
1 Gibbs J 2013, ‘Neonicotinoids in Australia’, The Australasian Beekeeper www.theabk.com.au/article/neonicotinoids-australia
11 Earthjustice website ‘Infographic: bees’ toxic problem’, see www.earthjustice.org/features/infographic-bees-toxic-problem