The food industry faces many challenges today that didn’t exist twenty years ago. Obesity and diabetes have skyrocketed, prompting advocacy groups to lobby for greater transparency in food marketing and packaging. Consumers are more concerned than ever before with what they are eating, and where it comes from. Food production rates are struggling to keep up with the demands of an ever-growing marketplace.
Amid all of this, it’s easy to see how farmers, manufacturers and consumers have neglected one of their most valuable assets — the humble honeybee.
Declining bee populations have had a severe economic impact on the agriculture industry. Approximately 75% of the crops we eat are pollinated by western honeybees, and a conservative estimate places the value of honeybee pollination to agriculture at around $15 billion each year. Without them, farmers have to pay for manual pollination services; a time-consuming, labour-intensive and highly inefficient process which will only get worse as the human population continues to balloon and demand outstrips supply.
For the first time, bees have been placed on the endangered species list. Seven different species of Hawaiian yellow-faced bee have been categorised as endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, following extensive study in their natural habitat.
Additionally, the organisation has petitioned for the rusty patched bumble bee, native to the mainland United States, to be granted government protection under the US Endangered Species Act following a steep population decline in the last 20 years — upwards of 90 per cent since 1990.
“The Endangered Species Act safeguards are now the only way the bumble bee would have a fighting chance of survival,” says Sarina Jepson of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, who collaborated with the US Fish and Wildlife Service on the Hawaiian study,
Population decline among bees has been linked to myriad factors, including climate change, habitat loss, disease, and pesticides. A specific family of pesticides known as neonicotinoids have been broadly acknowledged as having a direct causal link with colony collapse disorder, the phenomenon wherein worker bees lose their ability to navigate back to a hive, leaving the queen and immature bees behind.
Recommending endangered species status and special protection for bees is an important step towards limiting further damage to their populations, but action needs to be taken on a broader level.
There are a number of things that consumers can do in their everyday lives to help honeybees, including buying local raw honey which reduces food miles and helps beekeepers over their costs, and planting bee-friendly flora in their communities. However, it is industry leaders who must take the initiative and be pioneers here, by fostering ethical agricultural methods with a greater degree of scrutiny regarding pesticides, and seeking new, innovative, and most importantly sustainable ways to feed future generations.