My family and I have been eagerly awaiting the cherry blossom season as the first highlight of spring. This year, it seems like the cold just won’t leave. Yesterday, we even had ground frost again. Nonetheless, we’ve decided to explore Brandenburg in the hope of spotting some blossom magic. For a five-year-old, this is a special event, and the excitement is tremendous.
The countryside is absolutely splendid in the spring. The fresh air, the lush green of the fields, and, far off in the distance, the first fruit trees are already delicately shimmering. We finally arrive and have a picnic under a blossoming cherry tree. There is buzzing and humming all around. We see bees, bumblebees, and other members of the bee family that I can’t quite place. “Bees pollinate flowers, and this results in hundreds of thousands of plants spreading around the world,” I explain to my child, realizing that my repertoire does not extend beyond the elementary school curriculum. So, I decide to inform myself. During my research, I come across headlines dealing with the declining numbers of bees. How are bees really doing nowadays, and what is this collapse of bee populations all about?
Honey bees and wild bees – a subtle difference
As a layperson, when I heard about declining bee populations, the first thing I thought about were honey bees. But on the website of the Lower Saxony State Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety, I read that not all bees are affected in the same way. It is important to distinguish between honey bees and wild bees.
Wild bees live in solitude. They are therefore known as solitary bees. More than 400 bee species build their nests alone. Some 75% of all wild bees make their nests in the ground, while the rest make their homes in plant stalks or the feeding tunnels of beetles in trees. Carpenter bees, for instance, bore their holes in dead wood, whereas certain bumblebee species use tree cavities to establish their small statelets.
Honey bees, on the other hand, are bred by beekeepers. They live in colonies, each consisting of a highly socially organized, permanent community featuring a pronounced division of labor and communication. On account of their social structure, honey bees can compensate for the loss of individual members without the colony as a whole dying. Over the past five years, there has been a marked increase in the number of beekeepers and bee colonies in Germany. In Lower Saxony alone, the number of beekeepers has risen by 25%.
The issue of declining bee populations, therefore, is one that primarily concerns wild bees. There are around 560 species of wild bees in Germany, of which 60% have been endangered for decades. Sixteen species are already considered to be extinct.
Causes of dwindling bee populations
The loss of habitat is the foremost cause of declining wild bee numbers. As a result of urbanization, the cordoning off of terrain, and the growth of new streets and building sites, the natural habitat of wild bees has been severely reduced. Over the course of their life-cycle, wild bees go through several developmental stages: from egg to larva to pupa to adult bee. Wild bees spend several months in a dormancy phase and therefore require nesting holes. If nesting conditions do not exist or are disturbed, the bee population shrinks dramatically. According to PETA, an area of 70 hectares is destroyed every single day, which could otherwise provide sustenance for wild bees.
Scarce supply of food
The increase in monocultures and the continual dwindling of biodiversity have led to less food supply for wild bees. The loss of tracts of land where native plants could grow has also reduced the supply of diversified foodstuffs, which, just as for humans, provides indispensable protection for insects against diseases. As with many other types of insects, some wild bee species specialize in ingesting pollen and nectar from specific plant families. In the absence of their so-called melliferous plants, the local wild bees die off, even when abundant other blossoms and ideal nesting places are available.
According to PETA, honey bees and wild bees now find themselves competing for food. With the rapid growth in the number of beekeepers and the ever-increasing demand for honey, the wild bee is proving to be the loser here. The first wild bee food vending machines have already been set up in Hombruch, Germany.
The approval process for insecticides and pesticides only involves testing on honey bees but not on wild bees. These toxins, however, have been demonstrated to affect the nervous systems of wild bee species. Symptoms include disorientation, which leads to a deterioration of the insects’ lifespan and reproduction capabilities.
Needless to say, climate change is also turning the lives of wild bees upside down. Today, the flowering phases of plants occur earlier, there are longer warm periods in winter, and there are sudden temperature fluctuations. These are all factors that disturb the natural lifecycle of bees, deplete their energy reserves, and, in general, make them more vulnerable.
How can I contribute to the protection of wild bees?
Without bees, we would be in real trouble. Some 70% of global agriculture is dependent on pollination through bees. Without new plants and flowers, there would be no vegetables, no fruit, no nuts or seeds, and therefore less food for us and other animals. For this reason, the Royal Geographical Society has officially designated the bee as the most important creature on the planet.
The protection of wild bees should therefore be in all of our interest. When nature is in balance, the pollinating activities of wild bees and honey bees complement each other and contribute to the preservation of biodiversity.
Although here at the orchard, the world of bees appears to be fine at first glance, future prospects for the wild bee do not look rosy. Yet, in principle, it is not difficult for people to contribute to the protection of wild bees. Even I should have no trouble acting on the following tips, and I’m sure that my daughter will have a fun time as well.
- Insect hotels provide wild bees with a safe place to nest. Children, especially, will find it exciting to observe and better understand these insects in their garden or on the balcony. This is also a good way of minimizing any fears of the often-misunderstood bees. You can buy an insect hotel or build one yourself
- Plant bee-friendly flowers. Find out what bee-friendly plants to grow in your specific area by checking your local bee(keeper) associations.
- If you buy fruit and vegetables from seasonal and organic regional farms, you support producers who do not use pesticides that are harmful to bees.
- Bees can find much more varied food when we refrain from mowing roadsides and wildflower meadows. And if you like your garden neat and cropped short, you can at least leave a few clusters of flowers.
- Absolutely avoid using any chemical pesticides, weed killers, or pest control products. There are plenty of organic alternatives to rid your garden of troublesome pests.
- When buying honey, you should also pay attention if it is regional and preferably buy directly from the beekeeper. To abstain from eating honey or switching to vegetable alternatives can, in the long term, curb demand and the financial incentive of large producers.
My daughter and I will certainly follow some of these tips. She is already looking forward to a bug hotel in our garden. Then hopefully, one day soon, our garden will be humming and buzzing too!