2012: Advent Biology: Buzz?

by on December 6, 2012

Courtesy of a conversation in the pub I had this evening, bees!

To elaborate a little on that…

Cultivating honeybees is a very long standing agricultural practice. It serves as much more than a source of honey: these insect pollinators are valuable to both the crops we grow and to wild plants. Without them and their wild counterparts, many plant species would not be capable of reproducing.

We take advantage of this to grow crops in quantities far vaster than ever seen naturally: as well as fruit and veg, specialty crops like almonds would be in trouble without insects visiting and ‘setting’ the crop. To meet large demands like these which outclass the availability of wild pollinators which after all, evolved with a quite different ecosystem, commercial beekeepers load their hives onto trucks and take a road trip. From a hive or two in the garden to truckloads of hives spending a few weeks upwards on many acres of orchard, apiarists and their bees provide a service needed by the agricultural community.

These cultivated hives are going to be having an effect on the wild bees and other pollinating insects though. From disease spreading (viruses, mites, bacteria and fungi are all causes for empty hives) to competition for food, they are not free of blame when the decline of wild insect populations is brought into the spotlight. Neither are the chemicals we use on crops, our crop choice and poor weather. It’s also important to note that honeybee populations are cyclic-there is a distinct crash in numbers every 10 years, in both wild and cultivated bees.

So while there’s currently a high interest in beekeeping on a small scale, there’s also worry over the state of the wild pollinators, and trouble in the commercial bee world, especially over the phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder, finding a hive of dead and dying bees after winter, without an immediately visible cause though parasitic mites are one of the likely suspects. It rather goes without saying that the more we study them, the better we’ll get at looking after our own and the wild bees. Fully understanding how bees work for us and with the ecosystem, that would be the ideal, but it’s probably very far off still.

[Image from British Beekeepers Association]

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