Maybe you could stand to live in a world without honey. But what about almonds, pears, avocados, grapes and – dare we say – wine?
Most plants rely on bees and other natural pollinators to produce some of nature’s most nutritious and beloved foods.
But pollinators, a diverse group that includes insects and animals such as birds and bats, are under threat because of widespread pesticide use, climate change, the emergence of foreign pests, diseases and habitat loss. Between April 2015 and April 2016, beekeepers in the United States lost 44 percent of their colonies and in the UK, beekeepers reported losses of almost 17 percent, according to the British Beekeepers Association.
If you’re a beekeeper, farmer or consumer you have something to lose if bees disappear – and a significant role to play in their survival.
Twelve years ago, Dale Gibson traded his early mornings as a stockbroker, for early mornings at his urban bee farm.
On the roof of his home in Bermondsey, London, eight beehives house about 200,000 bees, along with his prize winning honey.
According to London Beekeeping Association, there were 2,259 apiaries and 3,699 colonies registered in the Greater London area in 2015. With many beekeepers choosing not to register, the association believes the number is even greater.
Though urban beekeeping is on the rise, beekeepers across the UK are finding it harder to compete in a market that demands cheap honey.
This pattern is also apparent in other parts of the world, like Vietnam. Though the country is one of Asia’s largest honey exporters, beekeepers find it harder to maintain their colonies, while making a reasonable living.
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Nguyen Thi Hang is the president and CEO of the Hanoi Honeybee Joint Stock Company. In her 30 years working with bees, she says the recent decline in colonies is a great cause for concern.
“We worry about our beekeepers, because we don’t want them to give up,” she said, “In the US farmers pay beekeepers to pollinate their crops, but in Vietnam they don’t.”
Hang hopes that the government will start to invest in the welfare of bees and keepers so the industry can begin to flourish again.
In Hanyuan County, China, pear and apple trees litter the landscape in abundance, but the buzzing of bees is uncommon.
The scarcity of natural pollinators is forcing farmers to hand-pollinate their crops.
Using brushes that look like feather dusters, they deposit bits of pollen on each flower, to give their crops the best chance at sprouting fruit. Bees and other pollinators, are rare in this area due to widespread use of chemical pesticides that farmers use to spray their crops.
In the US, natural pollinators are not as common to the agricultural landscape as one might think. Depending on the season, bees are trucked as far as 3,000 miles from Florida to California to help farmers pollinate crops. Renting hives from beekeepers can cost farmers anywhere from $10 to $180 per hive and some farmers rent dozens of hives per season.
The demand for bees in California leads to price increases for popular crops like almonds and avocados, as they rely almost entirely on bees for pollination.
It’s hard to imagine that an animal as small and inconspicuous as a bee, could be our greatest ally in providing food, but approximately one third of everything we eat is a direct result of their hard work.
The FAO estimates that in Europe alone, 84 percent of the 264 crop species are animal pollinated and 4,000 vegetable varieties exist thanks to pollination by bees.
The benefits of bees also go far beyond gastronomy. In a study conducted by the University of Reading, in the UK, researchers found that bees contribute £651 million ($805 million) to the UK economy a year, and according to the American Beekeeping Federation, honey bees contribute over $14 billion to the value of US crop production.
So what can you do to help bees? It can be as easy as planting herbs, wildflowers, bushes and fruit trees in your garden.
“For city dwellers, herbs are a great thing to have growing on your window sill,” Gibson says. “Rosemary, lavender, thyme, and chives are great options that require little space and provide produce for humans and bees.”
Gibson also suggests buying honey from local beekeepers instead of the industrial honey produced for most supermarkets.
“Artisan producers of raw, unblended local honey, are competing against mass-produced, commodity honey, which comes from many different places where food standards might fall far short of our own,” he said. Although it is cheaper, industrial honeys are processed to extract pollen, enzymes and aromatics, leaving a product that competes and demoralizes local beekeepers.”