Let’s Bee Positive

Let’s Bee Positive focuses on the current status of the global bee population and what countries are currently doing to ensure that bees, and by extension plant and animal life, do not go extinct.

A morning banana. Ice-cold lemonade. Lindt’s Classic Milk Chocolate. Although they are quite different, these things all have at least one thing in common. Each is a delicious, often underappreciated blessing given to us by our tiny-winged, large-bodied friends: the honeybees. From the balm on your lips to the honey in your tea, life would be a lot less sweet without our black and yellow buddies. And, in recent years, it seems like that is the life we might be facing.

With one trip to Google, its easy to see why. Just by typing in the word “bees”, you’ll find the internet abuzz with dark and depressing articles: “Bees face mass extinction”, “Humans Living in a World without Bees”, and the particularly disheartening “No Bees, No Food.” And the media, sensing our trepidation about the world to come, only adds fuel to the fire to make money off of our fear (look no further than Infested, a somewhat ridiculous post-apocalyptic world filled with zombified bees.)

That’s not to say that the basis behind these stories isn’t true: between April 1, 2018 and April 1, 2019, the managed bee population faced a decline of about 40% in the United States. With threats like pollution, climate change, deforestation, and deadly pesticides all contributing to this number, the rate of bee mortality has reached a somewhat alarming rate. Currently, eight species of bee are listed as endangered (the honey bee is not among them). From reading reports like these, it seems almost unavoidable that the next generation will face a grim, fruitless fate.

However, just as the bees have given us a multitude of blessings to occupy our time (and our mouths) during quarantine, our self-imposed lock-down has proved to be a blessing to bees in return. With human beings stuck at home, bees are being allowed more time to do their own thing without us getting in the way. During this past winter, the U.S. honeybee population experienced its second smallest decline in 14 years, clocking in at only 22%. In the United States, where winter losses to bee colonies have commonly reached between 30-50%, this number is particularly inspiring to see. Follow that up with country-wide quarantine and business closures and the bees are being given more space to live in peace and grow their numbers.

Picture taken by Eric Ward; property of Unsplash

For the United States, one of the first major strides in combating this issue comes from all the way back in 2018. Following a settlement, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had successfully banned the use of 12 commercial neonicotinoids, pesticides that are both addictive and deadly to pollinator populations. While this left 47 neonicotinoid products still available for use on the market, the removal of 12 of them (or 20% of neonicotinoid insecticides) is a huge step in the right direction for bee and other pollinator conservation within the United States.

Looking at this year, a series of proposed interim decisions regarding several neonicotinoids was released by the EPA back in January. As observable on their website, some of the goals of these proposed decisions include managing pesticide use to reduce ecological risk as well as imposing restrictions to limit pesticide exposure to bees and other pollinators. More information, including an outline of the EPA’s decisions regarding neonicotinoids, can be found on their site here. Although many of these pesticides are still legal for use within the U.S. today, the EPA is at least attempting to control the damage these products can do to the current bee population.

Looking across the pond to our friends in the European Union, bees are experiencing much more hopeful prospects. According to a study in the Journal of Apicultural Research, the loss rate for honey bee colonies during the winter of 2017-2018 was around 16%. While this is by no means a perfect number, it was nearly half of the United States whopping 30.7% bee loss during that same year. According to information available to the public through the European Commission’s website, the number of beekeepers has been on the rise every 2 years since 2014 for a majority of the countries within the EU, as evident by the graph below. Back in 2013, the EU also banned the use of 3 neonicotinoids on flowering plants that might attract bees and other pollinators.

The Evolution of Number of Beekeepers in EU

According to an article in the Guardian, member states of the EU enacted a total ban on neonicotinoid use back in April of 2018. Aside from strong push-back from pesticide manufacturers, the ban was well received by the public. As far as regulation, the EU requires an extensive risk assessment before insecticide products can be approved for use. Products are approved only if the potential for bee exposure is low and it has no chronic, negative effects on bee colony creation or survival. The future only looks brighter as countries around the world start to become more serious about addressing the problems a bee-less world might pose.

But if you want to believe that a world once again filled with bees is possible, look no further than Slovenia, a country nestled between Austria and Croatia that borders the Adriatic Sea.  Nearly 5 in every 1,000 people are beekeepers, each maintaining an average of 16 beehives. After the United Nations approved the country’s proposal for the recognition of World Bee Day (May 20th) back in 2017, Slovenia has proven to be a powerhouse when it comes to beekeeping. In April, 2018, the government went so far as to establish the Beekeeping Academy of Slovenia in order to share the country’s extensive knowledge on beekeeping with the rest of the world. 

Their website, which is free to access and open to the public, aims to educate new and old beekeepers on the basics, as well as teach the world Slovenian beekeeping methods. Webinars, which are conducted in English, cover 5 different but closely related beekeeping topics, all with the express purpose of training beekeepers within urban environments. You can sign up for classes by filling out the application form here and, for a small fee, you can learn to become a beekeeper from one of the world’s leading countries in that field. How cool!

Of course, the world has a long way to go before the International Union for Conservation of Nature can take bees off the list as vulnerable or endangered. However, I hope that this article has provided you with a little bit of hope for the future of bees and, by extension, the world in general. It takes all of us, from the smallest honeybee to the biggest corporations, to create the world as we know it. And while there is still a lot of work to be done before we can truly make the world a great place, there are individuals, governments, and entire countries out there trying to build the base from which we can expand our efforts of protecting our perfect little pollinators.

Hopefully it was made clear by the article that something small can make a huge difference. So are you feeling inspired and want to find a way to help out? I’ve attached some ideas below, organized by the level of change your contribution would make toward preserving the bee population. Let me know what you think!

Small scale– Plant native flowers in your garden, like clover or lavender, that provide a great source of nectar for bees and reduce or eliminate your use of pesticides. If creating a Bee Garden really piques your interest, this article from the Honeybee Conservancy teaches you how to do just that!

Larger scale– If you have the yard space and the time, take up beekeeping! Aside from the resources at Slovenia’s Beekeeping Academy, YouTube has great videos like this that can help you get started. If not, you can always help to support the local beekeepers in your area by checking out this link!

Grand Scale/You’re a bee hero!– Write to your elected representatives to ask what they are doing to combat the decline of the bee population in your state. Information on how to contact your State Senator is provided by this site. If you feel your voice is not being heard or wish to go straight to the top, the EPA’s website, provided here, includes multiple forms to contact them about changing their policies and regulations.

If you’re interested in doing some research of your own and don’t know where to start, I’ve provided some interesting articles I came across while researching the topic for this article below.

Journal of Apiculture Research article: Click Here

Information about the EU’s efforts for Bee conservation: Click Here

EU National Apiculture Programmes 2020-2022 Report: Click Here

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