The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), an essential partner of the Belgian Development Cooperation, proposes 6 ways to show our gratitude to bees, butterflies and other vital pollinators.
“It’s a bee!” someone screams as they jump up from their picnic blanket, knocking over their apple juice and flailing their arms, trying to get away from this flying creature. Does this scene sound familiar?
Many people are afraid of bees. And why not? They look like aliens. They have stingers that hurt more than you would expect and some people are very allergic, even deathly allergic, to them. But contrary to our fears, bees are not aggressive insects and do not go after humans unprovoked. When they come near you, it is only because you have something they consider yummy. And if you knew all that they do for you, you would be happy to share your food or drink with them!
Did you know that out of at least 20 000 species of bees only 7 of them are honeybees? Western honeybees produce 1.6 million tonnes of honey a year.
More than 75 percent of the world’s food crops depend, to some extent, on pollination. Pollinators, like bees, butterflies, birds, moths, beetles, and even bats, help plants reproduce. Fruits and vegetables are actually plant babies. We don’t often consider them in this way, but seeds, fruits and some vegetables come from a plant that has been pollinated. Bees are part of the reason we even have some of that picnic food!
Yet, there has been a worrisome decline in the population of pollinators, especially bees and butterflies, mainly due to intensive agricultural practices, changes in land use, pesticides (including neonicotinoid insecticides), alien invasive species, diseases, pests, and climate change. Close to 35 percent of invertebrate pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, and about 17 percent of vertebrate pollinators, such as bats, face extinction globally. Farmers and policy makers have a big role to play in safeguarding our pollinators. But there are things we can do too.
Here are 6 reasons to BEE grateful for our pollinators and tips on how you can show it:
1. They improve our diets by providing micronutrient-rich foods
Not all our food crops need pollination; rice, wheat and potatoes, for example, would survive even if our pollinators did not. However, many of the very nutritious, micronutrient-rich foods, like fruits, some vegetables, seeds, nuts and oils, would disappear without pollinators. A world without pollinators is a world without some of the foods we love so much (and need for good nutrition!) like strawberries, apples, blueberries, cherries, almonds, cocoa and coffee.
Tip: Return the favor! Give bees food they like by growing native plants in your garden. Plants and pollinators have a mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationship. They need one another to survive and have therefore evolved that way. Native, local plants are the ones that will be most adapted to native bees. Planting a diverse set of native plants which flower at different times of the year can make a huge difference for pollinators.
75 percent of the world’s food crops, like apples, coffee and blueberries, owe their existence to pollinators.
2. They give us honey!
Did you know that out of close to 20 000 species of bees only 7 of them are honeybees? Western honeybees produce 1.6 million tonnes of honey per year! This wonderful product is a natural sweetener that also has antibacterial and antiseptic properties. Honey has been a part of human civilization for millennia. The ancient Egyptians used honey for medicinal purposes, such as healing wounds; they also used beeswax to embalm the dead and create artificial light. Today, products like honey, beeswax and other byproducts provide additional income to rural families.
Tip: Buy raw honey from local farmers. Many local smallholder farmers and forest communities maintain sustainable beekeeping practices. You can lend support by buying raw honey, beeswax or other bee products, directly from them.
3. They have a great work ethic
A single honeybee will typically visit around 7 000 flowers a day, and it takes four million flower visits to produce a kilogram of honey. Each individual bee is part of a team working tirelessly to support the growth and productivity of their beehive by gathering as much pollen as possible, while at the same time pollinating many plant species. This tireless dedication has given rise to the saying “busy as a bee”.
Tip: Reward these busy bodies by making a bee water fountain. These little ones need water after buzzing around all day. Leaving a clean, shallow water bowl, with rocks or sticks in it so that bees don’t drown, is a good way to give the bees a resting spot and some necessary refreshment.
4- They make our foods taste better
Well-pollinated plants produce larger, more uniform, tastier fruits and vegetables. Plants gauge how much effort is needed to produce a fruit or vegetable. If it hasn’t been well pollinated, plants won’t necessarily invest resources evenly in their production, resulting in misshaped or bland fruits and vegetables. A deformed apple, for example, could mean that the plant had insufficient or imbalanced pollination!
Tip: Avoid pesticides, fungicides or herbicides in your gardens. They can kill pollinators and poison hives with contaminated nectar or pollen brought by bees from contaminated plants. Try to find natural solutions to pests for the plants in your garden.
About 35% percent of invertebrate pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, and close to 17 percent of vertebrate pollinators, such as bats, face extinction globally.
5- They increase food production and food security
In one study where pollination was well-managed on small diverse farms, crop yields increased by a significant median of 24 percent! Bees and other pollinating insects are improving the food production of 2 billion small farmers worldwide, helping to ensure food security for the world's population. Honey hunting of wild bee colonies also remains an important part of the livelihoods of forest-dependent peoples in many developing countries.
Tip for farmers: Create a good habitat for bees in order to ensure pollination. Leave some areas of the farm as a natural habitat. Create hedgerows with native plants that flower at different times during the year and plant attractive crops such as sunflower and coffee, and fruit trees such avocado and mango. Reduce your use of pesticides, and leave bee-nesting sites untouched.
6- They maintain biodiversity
Pollination is one of nature’s most important processes contributing to biodiversity. It helps us to produce a wide variety of plants many of which are also food crops. An estimated 90 percent of the world’s flowering plants depend on pollination for reproduction. And though often overlooked, bees and forest beekeeping also help sustain forest ecosystems as pollination helps the regeneration of trees which in turn helps to conserve forest biodiversity.
Tip: Learn more about bees and conquer your fear. By researching these creatures, you will see that bees are not generally dangerous. Not all bees sting and the ones that do, do it for a reason. Stinging and swarming are self-defense mechanisms. They don’t intentionally hunt humans. By better understanding how to respect them, you can avoid bad encounters and learn to live peacefully with these necessary creatures. And help spread the word: You can be an advocate for bees!
It is no wonder that all the major world religions have sacred passages about bees. They have been and still are vital to food and life as we know it. Through the 2018-2030 plan of action of the International Pollinators Initiative, FAO and the Convention on Biological Diversity Secretariat in consultation with the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and other partners, will promote coordinated action worldwide to safeguard wild and managed pollinators and promote the sustainable use of pollination services, which is recognized as vital for agriculture and healthy ecosystems.
These actions support agriculture that is more diverse and less dependent on toxic chemicals. Helping keep our pollinators safe supports our food production, the incomes of farmers and the wider environment. Help us spread the buzz!