World Bee Day — May 20th

Taking a walk yesterday along the South Downs coastal path near the Seven Sisters, I came across a nature board explaining the plight, from loss of habitat, of the solitary and rare ‘Potter Flower’ bee. In common with many other solitary bees and wasps, this bee nests in sandy soils and the flower-rich grasslands and meadows that have largely disappeared from our landscape — 97% since 1945 — through a combination of changing land use and intensive farming techniques. Reading the board reminded me that May 20th was World Bee Day: a day which highlights the vital role these natural pollinators play in all our lives.

A swarm of bees in Yorkshire. It moved on after a couple of hours.

I wrote in a previous Thought about the increasing importance of recognising the value of natural capital in commercial decision-making. Bees (as well as moths and the much-maligned wasps) make the case for this perfectly: providing an essential service, for free. In the UK, our 270 species of bees pollinate not only 80% of our wildflowers, but also many of our food crops. Approximately one third of all food production is pollination dependant, with bees performing this service on an industrial scale. Globally, the value to us in monetary terms of this free service has been estimated at $265 billion per year. On top of that let’s not forget the 1.85m tonnes of honey produced globally each year and beeswax, valued for its many practical uses and for its health-giving properties.

Whilst we all understand the need to protect the natural environment, for the benefit of our pollinators, and in recognition of nature’s role in helping combat climate change, the world’s growing population also needs to be fed. Finding a balanced solution to this problem has been central to the thinking of food and agri-business Olam, which says:

‘As an agricultural company, we have a first-hand understanding of the vital role bees and other insects play in our food system’

Protecting our pollinators: bee-friendly farming, by Chris Brown, Olam International

Implementing an ‘Integrated Pest Management’ methodology, has been fundamental to this, as the example below demonstrates:

‘Limiting the impact of agricultural chemicals on biodiversity, soil and water quality is of utmost importance in our own upstream operations. For example, in the United States and Australia, we rely on 2.7 billion bees [for pollination]. Each year during the pollination period, bees are brought in and managed by a professional beekeeper, who determines where to place the bees for maximum pollination and the safety of the bees themselves.’

Olam also recognise the benefit that introducing bees can bring to yield quantity and quality. Bee pollinations can increase fruit set from 12-50% on coffee farms, directly benefitting the livelihoods of smallholders in the supply chain. When all of the costs and benefits are taken into account, there is a compelling economic case for investing in bees.

Closer to home, here are some things you can do to support the bee population where you live. Remember, bees need three things to thrive: food, shelter and water.

  • Bees forage from flowers rich in nectar and pollen. Whether you have a garden, window box or hanging basket, plant a variety of different flowers to cater for the needs of different species.
  • If you have the space, a pond, however small, encourages wildlife, providing a source of water, safety and a breeding ground for some species.
  • Leave some ‘wilderness’ in your garden to provide a safe habitat and ‘bug hotels’ for over-wintering.

Next time you spot a bee buzzing around you, take a moment to remind yourself what a great job they are doing and that by looking after them, they are looking after us.

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