If bees became extinct today, mankind would follow suit in 2012. Albert Einstein proclaimed this insect the most important factor in our food chain. As their numbers dwindle, BOB MADDOX believes we must refocus our attentions and save the humble bumble bee
“GOOD morning class. Today were are going to be looking at what may possibly prove to be the greatest threat facing humanity today. According to a small group of experts to whom nobody is listening, it could be just around the corner. Any guesses as to what it might be? Now hands down all those who think it is climate change. Hmm, more than three-quarters. Now all those who go for bird flu. OK, that has thinned things out a little. Aids? Hands down. Hmm, not too many left now. Ebola? An uprising of the undead? George W Bush? Nuclear War? Osama Bin Laden? No more hands left up I see.
“Well, it looks like I am going to have to tell you. It is… hold on. Is that one last little hand I see still up over there in the corner? And what is your name then?”
“Albert Einstein sir.”
“OK Albert. And what do you think it might be then?”
“Go on Albert. Tell us how bees could possibly bring down the human race.”
“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then Man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more life.”
outburst of sniggering
“Quiet! The rest of you can all stop laughing, because Albert is absolutely right! Well done boy. Keep this up and you could make a bit of a name for yourself in biology. What’s that you say Albert? Physics? No, stick to what you are good at, that is my advice.”
Well, it appears that Einstein’s (possibly apocryphal) quote may shortly be put to the test. For out there, as the World’s media focuses on spiralling food and energy prices, shrinking ice-caps and burning forests; a quieter and much deeper threat to our future may be taking shape. Few people have heard of it, still less appear to care and it is largely ignored by environmental organisations and governments worldwide.
While we panic over oil prices, weep over polar bears and waste our time nit-picking over the details of scientific evidence for global warming, countless millions of our little friends the honeybees are simply vanishing across the world in an epidemic known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – an affliction which leaves no hives full of sick or dying bees; no piles of little furry black and yellow bodies to mourn over.
The bees are simple disappearing. Increasingly large numbers of those busy aerial pollinators are leaving for a day in the fields and simply failing to return home from work, leaving hives reminiscent of the Marie Celeste.
The United States, which is where CCD was first recognised and is assumed to have originated, has now lost at least a quarter of its estimated 2.6 million honeybee colonies. Today, CCD appears to be going pandemic, with serious outbreaks reported in Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland , the United Kingdom and here in Spain. And no one knows how or why. More alarmingly, environmental organisations and governments appear not to care particularly either.
So why are honey bees so important? And why do we take them so much for granted that we appear to be largely ignoring a real threat to their survival as a species?
The answer to the first question is simple and direct. Honeybees form a critical part of the human food chain. With honeybees responsible for pollinating 80 per cent of our flowering crops, more than one-third of everything you and I consume has reached our tables courtesy of a pollinating honeybee.
Lose the Honeybee – lose the food chain.
And lest, from the cloistered security of our overstocked Saturday supermarket shopping trips, we should be in any doubt as to the potential consequences of this, we have only to look to the horrors of Ethiopia to see what can happen when a food chain collapses.
Which brings us to the question of why such a clear threat is largely going ignored. And here, it seems, we move into the strange and fickle world of human perceptions and emotions.
It is no secret that in the rich western world, our awareness of where our food really comes from and just how it gets to our tables has been declining for years.
We have become consumers and have adopted a mentality to match. Having long abandoned any attempt at getting our hands dirty in the vegetable garden, increasing numbers of us cannot now even be bothered to prepare and cook that which we pluck from the supermarket shelves, opting instead for so-called convenience foods and ready-meals.
So divorced have we become from this basic life-sustaining reality, that to an alarming number of our children, the term ‘Food Chain’ conjures up images of McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC.
And here lies the roots of a disturbing problem – a deep dislocation from the reality of our food production which comes with our modern industrial farming methods and our supermarket culture.
If food comes from Coviran and Mercadona, why worry about bees?
In this land flowing with milk and honey, too few of us seem to appreciate that you cannot simply lose the honey. The milk and much else which magically appears on our supermarket shelves, will go with it.
Given the potential threat, why do we appear to be doing so little about it? Where are the major environmental groups and lobbyists? Where is the Al Gore of the Apian world? Well here, I fear, we may come down to the paltry fact that the plight of our honeybees is simply not the current haute coiture in the environmental world. Climate change and endangered mammals are currently hogging the environmental catwalk.
If you are in any doubt about this, then try finding an organisation that will allow you to sponsor an endangered invertebrate; no matter how critical they may be to the ecosystem, there are precious few organisations out there making a fuss on their behalf. Try buying a ‘Save The Earthworm!’ T shirt.
No such difficulties exist if you fancy sponsoring a mammal or even a vegetable. Tigers, pandas, other assorted bears, various apes, whales, dolphins, even trees – all up for adoption under the banner of conservation.
Worthy organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and others clamour for our attention on a daily basis using images of mammals – usually mammals with nice eyes such as baby seals, or pandas.
These are powerful appeals to our anthropomorphic instincts and they work every time; for whereas the compound eyes of an insect may leave us cold, we see something of ourselves in those moist mammalian eyes. As a result, other equally endangered but less environmentally useful creatures figure far more highly in the heirarchy of our affections than do bees. Amy Winehouse, Gordon Brown and Ana Obregon spring to mind.
It is here that we may be making a disastrous error in our conservation strategy. For these mammals (ourselves included), may not be quite as important as we make them out to be.
Now, before my inbox becomes clogged with accusations of Mammalism, let me state up front that
some of my best friends are mammals. I even married one.
But this does nothing to change the fact that, in environmental terms, neither dolphins, nor whales, nor polar bears, nor seals are any more important than plankton. Nor are pandas, koala bears, tigers, or human beings any more important than grass.
In fact, it is perfectly arguable that they are less so.
For the truth of the matter is that the health and prosperity of each of these great mammals is inseparable from that of its lowliest counterpart in the vegetable kingdom.
In the oceans, the plankton sustains all else above it. On land, it is the green plants – especially the grasses. All life is inextricably linked from bottom to top in that complex and beautiful relationship which we call a Food Chain.
Never forget that when you eat a cow, you are merely eating grass, one step further up the pyramid. And for our terrestrial food chain to function, the flowering plants and grasses must be pollinated.
Which brings us back to bees. Why our bees are failing to return to the hive is, it seems, something of a mystery.
In a pandemic which has been dubbed Apian Flu and Mad Bee Disease, there is no shortage of suspects. Parasites, viruses, pesticides, climate change, GM crops and even radiation from mobile phones interfering with bee navigation. These have all been cited as the main culprit.
But without evidence, these remain simply theories.
And with environmental groups and governments looking elsewhere, they are likely to remain so for some time. With Climate Change hogging the environmental agenda, drowning polar bears are fashionable. Disappearing honeybees are not.
Could it be that by focusing our environmental attention on climate change and the higher mammals to the exclusion of so much else, we are in danger of ignoring a quiet crisis that threatens the very foundations of our food supply?
It is time to get things in perspective. Too many of our environmental priorities are based on emotion rather than reason. Witness the hysteria generated by a single Northern Bottlenose whale, lost up the Thames in 2006.
Millions of honeybees are losing their way every day and who cares? We should.
Bees are vanishing and they need our help. They have worked tirelessly in our fields and orchards for thousands of years. Now it time for us to get busy on their behalf.
Surely the last thing we should be doing is hanging about to see if yet another of Einstein’s theories proves to be correct.