Published On: Wed, Jul 17th, 2013

Vanishing honey bees – a cause for concern

My day job is running a renewable energy development company, with a focus on solar PV and biomass energy.  On the solar side I have been trying to make our sites as environmentally beneficial as possible.  By this I mean that the sites should be better for the environment after our development than they were before the development started.  So we have been trying to rethink our solar sites as solar nature reserves rather than as solar farms.

In a typical solar farm we rent 25-35 acres of land – the size of a big field – for 26 years.  Of the area about 4-6 acres or so will be covered with rows of solar panels (with grass growing underneath them) on an east west axis, pointing south, and the rest is empty so that the row of panels in front does not cause shadowing effects on the row behind.

So the big question is what can we do with the land to make it as beneficial to nature as we possibly can.  Clearly turning the area into wild flower meadows is a good option: this encourages huge biodiversity with great benefits to various insect populations, including honeybees, which are mysteriously dying off all over the world.  Providing bird and bat boxes makes sense too – there will be lots of insects to eat and the smaller mammals will become prey for owls and hawks.

I recently watched Vanishing of the Bees, a 2009 documentary about Colony Collapse Disorder, which is wiping out 30%-80% of honeybee colonies worldwide.  As a film it is a little slow and feels slightly amateurish in its production values, but the message is alarming.  And not just because honeybees are cute: between 1/3 and 1/2 of all fruit and vegetables at a typical supermarket are pollinated by honeybees.  No honeybees and all of those products will disappear off the shelves.  Goodbye to cashews, beets, broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, chestnuts, watermelons, cucumber, fennel, strawberries, macadamia nuts, mangoes, apricots, and almonds.

CCD was first spotted in 2006 and the causes are still not fully understood.  The US Department of Agriculture recently produced a report on the subject to try and get to grips with the situation, but it is inconclusive.  It sounds like it is a combination of factors, with no smoking gun, including parasitic mites, viruses, pesticides that cause disorientation called neonicotinoids and bad diets (amazingly honeybees are shipped from Australia to California by 747 to pollinate almond crops, and are fed a sugary liquid in transit).

What is odd about CCD is that honeybee colonies that appear health one day can literally disappear the next: the bees aren’t dead in the bee hives but have literally vanished, en mass.  In one poignant episode in the film 70,000 colonies disappear in a matter of days – more than 2 billion bees.  Where do they go to die?

So anything that we can do to provide safe havens for honeybees must be a good thing.  Wildflower meadows provide a variety of species for the honeybees to pollinate over the course of a year- reducing risk of diseases caused by monocultures.  Clearly there will be no pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, or fertilisers put on the land, which should eliminate problems caused by poisonous chemicals – though they can move off site to neighbouring fields.

In the meantime watch the film.



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