What has happened to all the bees?
Their drowsy hum in the meadow grass used to be the stock summer accompaniment to the thwack of ball on willow and the drone of Dan Maskell reporting the early exit of yet another British tennis hopeful at Wimbledon.
I’ve seen fewer than a dozen bees out this year, and it’s already July. Several of those were dead, their little furry corpses lying curled and dried-out on the footpaths through the exurban space that passes for a park in our seaside town.
And I’m constantly being emailed to ask me to sign petitions calling on the government not to overturn the European ban on the family of pesticides known as neo-nicotinoids, in the face of angry buzzing from the agripoisons industry and the always despicably self-interested Farmers’ Union.
Neonics have been implicated in the collapse of commercial bee colonies and a worrying reduction in the wild population. Research suggests that complex chemical compounds accumulating in bees from a range of crop sprays are causing them to lose their famous sense of direction, which prevents them from foraging or flying back to the hive with food. Weakened, they fall prey to more lethal viruses borne by proliferating mites.
There’s clearly something more complicated going on than just pesticide poisoning, as the industry argues that their own research has shown no direct effect on bees from neonics in the doses prescribed. If anyone should want to save the bees, it would be the farmers whose crops they pollinate for free.
As it happens, I live in a small part of the world where there is no arable farming, or very little. It’s sheep country. And here on the edge of town people have gardens, and we’re a yard or two away from open countryside, hill pasture, much of which is being allowed to revert to scrub, and from the undeveloped valley floor with its dense copses and riverbanks and marshy heathland vivid with wildflowers.
There is no intensive farming here whatever, unless you count the open savannahs of the sports clubs, cricket and rugby grounds, where some preventative spraying does go on in early summer. An enlightened local authority, too, is responsibly maintaining meadow grassland along road verges and on traffic roundabouts, and planting trees.
You would imagine therefore that our local bee population would be virtually unaffected, certainly by the kind of intensive crop spraying that used to put our son in hospital with asthma every summer, when we lived and had our little smallholding in the midst of a 300-acre industrialised wasteland of acid-yellow rape.
And you might think that the proliferating wildflowers of many kinds would offer them plenty of fodder. Yet there are no bees, or almost none, to be seen. What is going on?
To quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “The times are out of joint”.
My theory, for what it’s worth, is that the flowers and their specialised pollinators are continually missing one another at the critical times when they need to arrive together. This would be due to the disrupted pattern of the weather as our climate appears to be changing.
Most of Nature can cope with minor annual variations in light, temperature and rainfall. But those factors critical to growth and reproduction have begun to oscillate a little more wildly in recent decades. Spring, for instance, is said to be arriving in Britain earlier each year and is now three weeks earlier on average than forty years ago.
This year, I have noticed that, for some reason perhaps due to last year’s wild and windy but warm winter (or perhaps due to rising CO2?), the tree cover is the most densely foliated I can remember ever seeing it, the scrub vegetation impassably jungly; yet the wildflowers, probably due to a long, cool, dry spell in March-April, have emerged very late, only in the last two weeks of June, in the sort of profusion that would guarantee sufficient variety to feed all the insects that depend on them.
Light levels, too, may have dropped in a Spring when there has been more volcanic activity around the globe than in most years; and un-civil aviation continues to cross-hatch the sky with vapour trails freighting sooty particulates into the stratosphere.
In other words, until the last few weeks there’s been almost nothing for the bees to eat. And now, this week, while most of England has sizzled in 90-degree temperatures, here in the West it’s been cool and cloudy, and it’s been raining all morning, so the bees won’t be flying today either.
Normally, they would survive these minor irritations; but add to them, the probability that wild bee populations are now already dangerously reduced, it may take time for their numbers to build up again, assuming no further environmental stress is inflicted on the survivors; which we can’t. Is there another possible factor causing stress disorders in bees?
Facebook pioneer, Mark Zuckerberg, has announced this week a plan to introduce a parallel service of mobile telephony, using “invisible” lasers beaming down from satellites, to improve his social media coverage in the parts where land-based communications haven’t yet reached. More high-frequency irradiation is all we need.
We live now in an electronic soup of low-energy radio waves emitted at all frequencies by innumerable devices. The cumulative energy of electromagnetic radiation emitted by all this communications technology is experimentally sufficient to power domestic electrical devices when captured, literally, from the air.
Again, the “industry” research has concluded that its by-product – radiation – must be harmless; yet we also believe and warn, especially children, that continual proximity to your cellphone might induce brain cancer.
All I can add is that it is unreasonable to suppose there can be no effect.
Electromagnetic radiation is only apparently safe at certain frequencies; at other points on the spectrum we know it can injure and kill, cook food, prove medically useful, and see through solid objects. We know, because we do those things with it.
Is it too far-fetched to think that the smaller and more delicate a neural organism is, the more vulnerable it becomes to disruption by radiation, inducing altered behaviours and perceptions?
Alterations that might indeed threaten the extinction of a uniquely susceptible – ecologically irreplaceable – and economically invaluable species?
Many years ago, a bumblebee smashed into my car’s windscreen. It set me calculating (I’m a bit OCD) how many bees might be killed by cars on British roads, given the number of vehicle registrations (36 million +), the average mileage driven (about 7,000 a year) and the total mileage of British roads (about 250,000), if each driver kills only one bee every five miles….
Millions of bees are killed by cars every summer.
The better news is, there are quite a few bees of varying sizes out foraging in the sunshine today. It helps that my magnificent privet hedge has finally decided to flower, it’s always an attraction for the gatherers.
It doesn’t help however that today, the parks department has decided it’s a good day to send a man with a noisy tractor and a topper to cut down the wildflower meadow boundaries around the river. I imagine they have a date they do it on every year, regardless of what’s actually happening on the ground.
It might also make some sense to seed the strips with bee-friendly wildflowers in the Spring, rather than leave it to Mother Nature; who, as we know, prefers tall grasses, thistles, dock and (highly poisonous) ragwort in her garden. I’m not sure we can leave her to make the decisions anymore.