“So Phil, why should we care about bees?” I began.
We were sat in Phil’s busy lounge, full of dark colours, interesting artifacts and books everywhere. Down below the window outside was a courtyard with three of his beehives and just outside was a ledge where a seagull would sit and stare at him some days. (Because sometimes he would give in and feed it.)
“Not everyone is going to get interested in bees but everyone should at least be aware of how important they are. Bees have farmed the land a lot longer than we have, shaping what exists by selecting the plants that produce their food and at the right time. The selected plants then perpetuate to become the food of herbivores. They are an absolutely key species. The oldest fully formed bee fossil is believed to be around 100 million years old. Our role in nature is very recent by comparison and we’ve enormously changed the landscape. Now it’s up to us determining what’s left for bees to eat.”
I laughed at the ridiculousness of how important the bees are. “Wow, so absolutely crucial to the ecosystem. What’s the state with ‘Saving the bees?’”
“Well it’s a lot more complicated than the press would have you believe. When you see stories they’re mostly talking about the one species, honey bees. They are a wild species too but their population in the UK is mostly in beehives held by beekeepers. Their habitat of hollow trees isn’t around because of the management of forests. We’ve invaded their territory and developed a lot of woodland or planted it out with fir trees rather than deciduous.
“There are also around 25 species of bumble bees and there are around 250 species of wild bees in the UK overall. Certainly there are a number of species that are endangered. They are endangered because of our agricultural system and it’s reliance on the artificial pesticides and fertilizers all of which are detrimental to soil life. So that’s one part of it.
“Honey bees have been having a lot of problems recently in the US and Canada because they have large areas of land down to genetically modified crops and they are massive consumers of pesticides.
“Also the way commercial beekeepers treat bees over there…is not something we do in this country at all. They move bees long distances, in particular, people will have heard about the almond pollination in California. Bees are raised in the southern states then transported two or three thousands miles in the back of big trucks, meanwhile being fed on high fructose corn syrup, which is derived from genetically modified maize. They are put on to this enormous monoculture of almonds. California produces 80% of the worlds almonds in this huge expanse around the size of wales. The trees are sprayed off with all kinds of stuff during the year and during the pollination season the ground underneath is then sprayed off so the bees don’t pollinate anything else. The bees are taken there, a) because of the enormous number of them – around one a half million hives…”
“That’s insane!” I interrupt.
“Yeah it’s something like half the population of US bees are taken there every February. Where they’re all mixed up together, so any diseases or parasites are going to get mixed in together. Oh by the way, bees don’t actually like almonds very much, they will only pollinate them all because there’s nothing else there. And also by the way the honey from almonds is also rather toxic and tastes vile.
“So those bees having been pretty much run into the ground are then taken to big holding sites where they are fed again on corn syrup to keep them alive.” Disgust and anger were slowly building in Phil’s voice as his talking sped up.
“Then very often they are converted into what’s called packages, divided into three pound lots and put into boxes, given an artificially inseminated queen, which isn’t related to any of them. And then sold to amateaur beekeepers to start their colonies. So with all that level of abuse going on, oh and by the way they’re also treated with organophosphates to kill the mites and antibiotics to prevent the outbreak of diseases. So when you talk about what’s going on in the USA, it’s actually a miracle they’ve got bees at all frankly.
“Beekeeping in the USA is a very different beast to beekeeping in the UK, at the moment, thank goodness. Most of the beekeeping in this country is small scale, amateurs with one or two hives at the bottom of their garden. In the states some of those guys have ten thousand hives. A couple of commercial beekeepers here have got fifteen hundred hives each. When we talk about colony collapse disorder it is largely an American phenomenon.
“The research that’s been done in the state seems to suggest it is mostly the agro-chemicals which are accumulating in the hives, combined with some of the chemicals that beekeepers themselves put into the hives. A combination of chemical abuse. We don’t know enough about the direct effects of genetically modified crops, but we do know they require the heavy use of herbicides like Roundup / glyphosate, which we know to be detrimental to bees directly but also soil conditions generally which always has a knock on effect. At the moment we don’t have the GM problem here, though if Owen Patterson has his way that’s going to change quite soon by the sound of it, sadly. There’s going to be a lot of resistance to that though I think.”
“Absolutely.” I said, thinking of one of my stops later in the month.