Sting in the tale of bees in ‘crisis’

Oct. 12, 2019 | 5 Min read
For the urban hipsters who dressed up as bees in this week’s Extinction Rebellion rallies, it is indeed serious: environmental challenges to honey bees might mean a future shortage of almond milk lattes.

For the urban hipsters who dressed up as bees in this week’s Extinction Rebellion rallies, it is indeed serious: environmental challenges to honey bees might mean a future shortage of almond milk lattes.

But experts say the suggestions the European honey bee is endangered and the human race faces extinction as a result are nonsense.

According to one of the leading experts on bees, the Australian National University’s Saul Cunningham, there are a lot of different challenges to the 20,000 species of bees around the world.

“Loss of habitats as a result of expansion of agriculture, pesticides, climate change — you must have the usual suspects that are causing the problems for bees and all insects on the planet,” Dr Cunningham said. “Lots of bees are vulnerable to extinction, and some have been lost.”

But when it comes to serving as a pollinator in the agricultural industry, there’s one species that does the job on a commercial scale — the European honey bee cultivated by professional beekeepers. Survival of that introduced species is not in the least threatened on environmental grounds, Dr Cunningham said.

“My first point is that we are not all going to die because of a bee problem,” he said. But, Dr Cunningham said, there’s a micro-economic challenge to European honey bees continuing to do their job for some farmers.

Different types of fruit and nut trees and broadacre crops rely on the bees — huge swarms of them when keepers’ hives are placed in the orchards and fields — to pollinate and produce fruit and seed.

Without that professional pollination, some crops, including apples, canola and coffee, won’t do as well in terms of yield and quality. Almonds won’t grow fruit at all.

“With almonds, no bees means no nuts,” said NSW Apiarists’ Association president Stephen Targett. The problem is that particularly in drought, beekeepers are increasingly reluctant to station their hives on farms.

Pesticides used in agricultural production can damage their bees’ immune systems and put them at risk of disease, while fungicides can damage the quality of pollen the bees feed their young. Eucalypt forests are much healthier places to station bees, and the honey can be branded organic.

“The bees get way less exposure to chemicals in the eucalypt forests, so that’s a lot healthier for the bees,” Mr Targett said. “They are under stress because of the drought, and increased exposure to chemicals doesn’t do them any good.”

As a result, almond farmers have to pay beekeepers considerable amounts of money on contract to station hives on their properties each spring. Dr Cunningham said the question is whether that economic equation tips so far that beekeepers demand more than what almond growers can afford.

“Australian almonds could be in trouble, but that’s not going to lead to mass starvation,” he said.

A huge amount of work is being done on bees: one project led by the CSIRO involves sticking tiny microchips on their backs with superglue and using antennas to track them like car e-tags.

Paulo de Souza, who moved from the CSIRO to Griffith University but still collaborates, said among other applications researchers used the tracking to test the impact on bees of different concentrations of pesticides.

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