Every April, in the pear orchards of southern Sichuan, China, thousands of residents gather, each carrying a step ladder and a small feather duster. Surprisingly this is not actually some bizarre ritual or collective act of madness.
This is one of the first examples of mass human pollination. Ever since bees disappeared from the region almost twenty years ago, the locals have been undertaking this herculean task of pollinating each individual blossom every spring. Welcome to a world without bees.
It is not just China that’s seen a fall in bee numbers. The problem has been recorded all over the globe, and this week, the European Commission announced it is considering suspending the use of three neonicotinoid pesticides on all agricultural crops that attract bees in an attempt to stabilise the situation.
This is in response to a report produced by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) which identified “a number of risks posed to bees” due to the toxins. Studies have shown that neonicotinoid pesticides affect the central nervous system of some insects, causing paralysis and death. If passed, the two year ban will come into force as soon as this July across the whole of the EU, although national bans are already in place in France, Italy and Slovenia.
In the UK, DIY shops such as B&Q, Homebase and Wicks have removed gardening products, containing the pesticides, from their shelves. However, the government (along with those of Spain and Germany) has confirmed it will stand against the immediate enforcement of the ban.
Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, says “It’s important that we take action based upon scientific evidence rather than making knee-jerk decisions that could have significant knock-on impacts.”
The proposed ban has been well received by both environmental groups and scientists, who have long suggested a link between the decline of bees and the increased use of such pesticides.
On the other side, pesticide producers, seed companies and farmer groups warn that the ban could hurt the EU economy and threaten jobs in the industry. Syngenta, a pesticide producer, even question the accuracy of the EFSA report saying that it was based on ‘political pressure to produce a hurried and inadequate risk assessment [of the pesticides]’.
However, Tonio Borg, the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy claimed that ‘swift and decisive action’ was needed to protect Europe’s bee populations. He said “The time is now ripe to ensure an equally high level of protection for bees across the EU.”
The decline in bee numbers has had a dramatic effect on the farming economy because so many crops rely on bees for pollination. Recently, farmers have resorted to hiring beekeepers to bring their hives to the crop fields so that the plants are more likely to get pollinated. One estimate for the price of bee pollination in the UK only is £200m per year. So the next time you hear a bee trapped in your room, let them out. We might need them!