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Why the collapse of bees is so serious

Fiona Chambers explains what Diggers members can do to help

I grew up in suburban Melbourne watching bees buzzing around the lemon tree and the clover in our lawn.
As far as I was concerned, bees and other pollinators were all around me in the environment. I admit ashamedly to once having a blatant disregard for bees and other pollinators. It’s not that I didn’t care about bees, but rather, I took them for granted.
I was probably not unlike many people who expect the ecological services performed by honey bees and other pollinators to just happen. But globally honey bees and other pollinators are in rapid decline.
In the USA, a systematic status review of 4,337 North American and Hawaiian native bees found that of the 1,437 bee species with sufficient population data to assess, more than half were declining and almost one quarter were at risk of extinction.1 The reasons for this decline are many and varied including pollutants, pesticides, parasites, viruses, diseases and malnutrition.
A 27 year study in Germany last year documented an average decline in flying insects across 63 sites of more than 76%.2 In the middle of summer, when the weather was the most severe, the average decline was even higher at 82%.
With about one third of the world’s food production, in terms of calories, and two thirds of food diversity reliant on pollination by bees and other pollinators, it is vital and urgent that we reverse this unsustainable trend.
The state of bees in Australia and their economic importance
Despite Australia being home to 1,660 named native bee species,3 there is currently no countrywide survey monitoring the state of these bees as important pollinators. It is therefore very difficult to gauge the real extent of pollinator decline in this country.
There are no reports of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)4 in Australia despite these being recorded widely in managed bee colonies on other continents. Globally, we still don’t fully understand the reasons behind CCD other than being complex and multifactorial.
The general consensus is that CCD is not yet a problem in Australia. The likely reason is the absence of the deadly Varroa destructor mite that affects bees by spreading deadly viruses and weakening the bees’ immunity.
The introduction of Varroa destructor mite to Australia would be devastating, so maintaining strict biosecurity control measures is crucial.
The successful interception at a Melbourne port on 29th June of a nest of bees that was found to be carrying Varroa destructor mites, is a good example of our biosecurity surveillance activities working to protect Australia’s interests.5 If you think, however, that these actions are there to protect the interests of the beekeeping industry alone, you would be wrong.
The estimated gross value of production from the honey bee industry is $101 million.6 By dramatic contrast, the estimated economic value of Australian insect pollinators is estimated to be more than 280 times greater at $28.4 billion.7 Approximately half of this economic value comes from managed and wild honey bees, with the other half coming from native bees and non-bee insect pollinators. These figures are based on the economic value that these pollinators contribute to the production of 53 agricultural crops in Australia.8
These includes crops like almonds, apples, avocados, berries and vegetable seeds just to name a few. Relative state by state comparisons of economic value are shown in the graph opposite.
As striking as this contrast is, the true economic value of Australia’s pollination is even higher. There is currently no economic value attributed to the role pollinators play in grazing livestock industries through, for example, the pollination of clovers.
Nor does it recognise the economic value created from the further processing through the agribusiness sector and the subsequent employment opportunities. In reality, the economic value of pollinators in Australia must therefore be considerably higher than $28.4 billion.
What can you do to help?
I think De Kroon put it well when, in responding to the outcomes of the German insect pollinator decline study, he said; “We need to do less of the things that we know have a negative impact, such as the use of pesticides, and prevent the disappearance of farmland borders full of flowers. But we also have to work hard at extending our nature reserves and decreasing the ratio of reserves that border agricultural areas.”
As gardeners, we can all help by increasing habitat for bees. Why not try building your own native bee hotel or planning and planting gardens with flowers that provide year round nectar and pollen supplies. Whether you live in the city, the country or the urban fringe, we can all think ‘trees for bees’ and plant more trees and flowers.
The Wheen Bee Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation that promotes awareness of the importance of bees for food security, and raises funds for research that addresses the national and global threats to bees.
For more information or to make a donation go to www.wheenbeefoundation.org.au

REFERENCES
1. Kopec K & Burd LA, 2017, A systematic review of North American and Hawaiian native bees. Center for Biological Diversity.
2. Hallmann CA et al, 2017, More than 75% decline over 27 years
in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLOSone.
3. Heard, T, 2016, The Australian Native Bee Book, Sugarbag Bees, p12.
4. Colony Collapse Disorder is a phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees. It was first described in the winter of 2006/07
in the USA, and subsequently found across Europe.
5. Agriculture Victoria, 2018, Agriculture Victorian steps up surveillance after Varroa mite detection, 29 June 2018.
6. ABARES, 2016, Australian honey bee industry 2014-15 survey results, p1.
7. Karasinski, J, 2018, The economic value of Australia’s insect crop pollinators, p10.
8. Karasinski, J, 2018, The economic value of Australian managed
and wild honey bee pollinators, p5.

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Fiona Chambers

Fiona Chambers is a lecturer at Marcus Oldham Agricultural College in Geelong. She holds a Diploma of Applied Science in agriculture, specialising in animal health, nutrition and genetics.
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