The Bee Crisis

In recent years there has been an increase in scientific research and media coverage of bee declines and a suggestion of the possible unfolding of a “pollinator crisis”. The discussion was largely sparked by the dissemination of information concerning the huge losses of managed honeybee hives in Europe, North America, the Middle East and Japan and evidence to suggest sharp declines in honeybees in certain areas is strong (Carreck and Neumann 2010). In the British Isles there may have been as much as a 75% decline in the honeybee population over the last century (Carreck 2012). It is not surprising that a potential bee crisis would gain such widespread interest given the importance of bees to plants and humans as well as the fact that the ‘crisis’ narrative ties in to broader concerns of mass species declines at the national and global level (for example, see the State of Nature report 2013). In other areas, however, there have been no reports of high losses of honeybees and hive numbers worldwide have actually increased by around 45% since 1961 (Potts et al. 2010).
Recent scientific and media information concerning bee declines has focused predominantly on managed honeybee colonies as opposed to other species (Potts et al. 2010). It has largely been through the perspective of the honeybee that the story of bee declines has been told. Managed honeybees, however, are somewhat unique in comparison to other bee species; unlike most solitary bees and bumblebees they live in artificial hives above the ground and are strongly affected by direct human manipulations. This means that data collected which describes issues facing honeybees may well not be representative of bees as a whole. The importance of this point should not be underestimated because, as Carreck (2012) has noted, the British Isles hosts around 270 species of bee of which the honeybee is but one. The remaining species diversity is made up of 24 species of bumblebee and 243 recorded species of solitary bee all of which have varying physiological characteristics and floral resource needs and habitat requirements (Stout 2012 and O’toole 2012). The literature that is available on bumblebees suggests that several species are in major decline, although a recent study by Carvalheiro et al (2013) claims that some bumblebee species have seen reductions or even reversals in decline since 1990 in some areas. Meanwhile the literature pertaining to solitary bee species remains scant. In this light it becomes apparent that our understanding of bee declines and current bee health is biased towards honeybees, with knowledge of other species being fragmentary (Potts et al. 2010). The disparity in knowledge between differing bee species has practical ramifications. In the UK, for example, the potential benefits of solitary bees for crop pollination and the wider ecosystem is largely unknown even though there has been evidence for some time that native species, in some instances, may be more efficient orchard crop pollinators than honeybees (O’Toole in LaSalle and Gauld 1993, p.177).
Reasons behind bee declines are considered to be multifactorial. Key causes include loss of habitat, increases in diseases and pests, impacts of agricultural chemicals, loss of forage resources and modern beekeeping practices (Brown and Paxton 2009, Potts et al. 2010 and Carreck and Neumann 2010). Recent media coverage has particularly focused on a group of insecticide, called the neonicotinoids, and their impacts on bees. Such coverage has pushed issues around bee issues into the political and public spheres, something which has ramifications for how bee plants are engaged with and conceptualised.

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