Simon Birch asks Professor Simon Potts from Reading University, ‘What value can we put on bees?'
Bees are big business. Around the world bees play a crucial role in the multi-billion dollar fruit and veg industry, pollinating everything from apples to pears, and raspberries to oilseed rape. Here in the UK, for many years it was assumed that it was just the honey bee thatbusied itself in pollinating our fruit trees and bushes. It’s now emerging though, that this is only part of the picture.
“In the early 1980s honey bees did most of our pollinating,” says Professor Simon Potts from Reading University and one of the world’s leading authorities on the role of bees as pollinators.“However, following severe declines in the numbers of hives over the last 30 years, there are no longer enough honey bees to do the job. It’s now our wild insects, such as bumblebees and hoverflies, that have filled the void to ensure that our crops are pollinated and food production is secure.”
Professor Potts describes these wild pollinators, which include the 250 species of wild British bees, as the unsung heroes of the countryside. Across the continent honey bees provide around two thirds of all pollination, but the situation in the UK is far worse with only Moldova having a bigger bee deficit. “The total value of insect pollinators to UK agriculture is now around £630 million a year with the majority of this work being carried out by wild pollinators. Honey bees are now only responsible for around a third of this,” says Professor Potts.
Analysis of the numbers of honey bee hives indicates that the current UK population of honey bees is only capable of supplying 34% of our pollination needs, falling from 70% in 1984. Without the wild pollinators it’s been estimated that it would cost British farmers a whopping £1.8bn to carry out essential pollination by hand, something which is already happening in China as a result of a complete absence of natural pollinators.
This increasing reliance on wild pollinators is now being viewed as potentially dangerous for the UK, given that their health isn’t being monitored and that too little is being done to protect them.
“We need a proper strategy across Europe to conserve wild bees and pollinators through habitat protection, agricultural policy and farming methods, or we risk big financial losses to the
farming sector and a potential food security crisis,” warns Professor Potts.
So what’s the relationship between honey production and the pollination services provided by honey bees? “The commercial honey market is worth between £10 million and £30 million a year depending upon the weather, a sum which is much smaller than the value of pollinating services,” says Professor Potts. “It’s often thought that the value of the honey bees lies in their honey, but people aren’t always aware that the bees’ pollinating services are far more valuable.”
Whilst the vast majority of the UK’s 40,000 beekeepers are small-scale operations producing modest amounts of honey, there are around 300 commercial beekeepers whose business is focused on hiring out their hives to fruit growers for their pollination services – any honey they produce being considered a bonus. And it’s these beekeepers that give Professor Potts cause for concern:“When used for pollination services honey bees are, in effect, just another domesticated farm animal,” believes Professor Potts. “And, just like other farm animals, there needs to be minimum welfare standards.” Professor Potts adds that whilst these “bee farmers”, as he calls them, argue that they’re in the business of providing vital pollination services, they do push their bees hard and try to get as much as they can out of them.
“If we want cheap food then we need to work honey bees hard,” says Professor Potts bluntly. “However, if consumers are prepared to pay a small premium then we could manage honey bees in a more bee-friendly way to produce crops which could then be certified as being bee-friendly.”
“It’s all a matter of balance”, argues Professor Potts, “between the twin issues of food security and animal welfare”. “Ideally we should try and do both by aiming for a smart middle way where we grow food well,” concludes Professor Potts, “but without causing too much damage
upon the land or our honey bees.”