Buzzing off – what’s happened to all the bees?

The honey bee is more than a hundred million years old, but it wasn’t until 2005 that humans figured out how it flies. A bee’s wings flap at over 230 beats per second, it communicates by dancing and is absolutely essential to the survival of agriculture. It’s also dying.

There are hundreds of types of bees – not just the ones that regurgitate that yummy stuff we call honey. Scientists largely agree that their efforts at pollination are as golden to the economy as they are to your toast, worth around £165m per year (2007 figures).

Sadly, and worryingly, the British government has so far failed to support a European proposal to ban pesticides linked to bee deaths on the grounds that the evidence is not conclusive. Nobody denies that bee populations are declining – around two thirds of pollinating species are rapidly falling out the sky, some by more than 30 per cent every decade. Butterflies and moths are also suffering a similar fate.

Weirdly, bees have been doing illogical things, like flying away from a healthy hive and leaving the queen behind in an impulsive act of regicide. They are also under attack by mites.

But, Marmite-haters, do not fear. Your afternoon tea and toast need not be ruined by black goo. A committee of MPs has found wisdom (ok, don’t choke) and condemned the British government for beating about the honeycomb. They have recommended taking immediate action rather than hanging about for more research.

The problem is, researchers can’t yet agree on whether the pesticides are to blame for shrinking bee numbers. If they are not, banning their use may harm farming in the UK and cost the economy. As the chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said:

“Neonicotinoids [the offending pesticide] will kill bees, let me be absolutely clear about that. It is what numbers do they kill and whether it affects populations – the question is whether banning them in any way would be proportional and at the moment the balance of evidence suggests it wouldn’t be.”

Clear cut, absolutely certain evidence remains unlikely. Science just ain’t like that. But at this rate, the bee population will be a bit like the 20th century climate – gone and too late to do anything about it. Come on Britain, even Italy managed to take some action on this despite barely having a government.

There’s something very ignoble about being responsible for the death of a species about 500 times older than yours.

Bottom line: better safe than sorry – ban the pesticides

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