Agriculture Europe Science

Are bees really dying?

Bees are the world’s most important pollinators and are worth about £200m to British agriculture each year. In the UK alone, they are responsible for the pollination of more than 40 important food crops. Apocalyptic news of the death and disappearance of the buzzy insect leading to a deserted world without fruits and vegetables concern activists and consumers alike. But what truth is there in those dire forecasts? Are our bees really dying?


Let’s just spill it right away: yes, our pollinators are in immediate danger and we need to do something about it. However, many articles going around these days plainly couldn’t bee more wrong when talking about measurements to fight the insect mortality.

What is really going on

Many actions aimed to decrease bee mortality are geared to the honeybee and sometimes it is even assumed that the promotion of the honeybee was benefiting the preservation of biodiversity or even the protection of species. However, this is not entirely true.

While experts estimate, without pollination a frightening 90% of wildflowers could be threatened with extinction, the lion’s share of the work is not done by the European honeybee, but wild insects!

Honeybee vs wild bee

There are more than 2.200 species of wild bees in Europe alone, about 20.000 on a global scale hustling to make gardens, fields, and forests bloom. Taken into account all species of animal worldwide acting as pollinators, scientists count around an incredible 200.000 insects.

In contrast, there are only 9 internationally known species of honeybees, of which 8 occur in Asia exclusively. They are livestock, bred for over 6000 years by humans in order to produce as much honey as possible. And although there have been significant losses over the winter, honeybees are not especially at stake in the UK. Some species of bumblebees and solitary bees are under greater threat.

Moreover, leading bee experts in Germany recently published a study stating that the honeybee, in fact, is not too significant for pollination in general. And yet, the word honeybee is often used as a synonym for all pollinators.

Why are beekeepers still important?

While pollination thus can be done by an incredible variety of animals, there is an element of scale when it comes to honeybees. A bumblebee nest will be a couple of hundred bees, whereas a honeybee colony can be 50.000 – 60.000.

Furthermore, different plants are pollinated by different insects, depending on their shape. Honeybees have a short tongue, bumblebees have a long tongue, for example – that’s why bumblebees wouldn’t go to sunflowers, it’s literally useless to them.

Although migratory beekeeping, that is, strategic pollination, plays only a little role in the UK, there is some crop profit. For instance, in spring by the bright dandelion-yellow flowers of oilseed rape, in autumn there is the heather crop and some orchids also demand pollination. However, the scale goes nowhere even close to the world-famous example of California Almonds.

Still, professionals like Ian Campbell from Newcastle and District Beekeeper Association observe and intervene bee decline. The expert says:

“Their population has dropped from 1.000.000 colonies to a third of that since WWII. In the past 15 years, billions of bees across the world have disappeared”.

That is, in some regions the so called ‘colony collapse disorder’ affected 90% of their bee population. Mr. Campbell and his colleges inform the public about the impacts of bee mortality and train beginners on how to take care of the life stock.

Mins on Twitter

I just successfully finished my first beekeeping class without a sting! 🐝 So happy 😁 Thanks to @newcastleBees society for this great experience. #bees #ncl #beemortality #beekeeping

True Geordie bees

This becomes especially challenging up here. The further north you go, the harder it gets to keep bees – the seasons get shorter, the climate is difficult. That’s why local bees are best for every area.

In Newcastle we have a darker strain of bees, with a good adaptation to NorthEast weather. Geordie bees – just like the people here – need to be hardy, thrifty with their stores and hairier to keep themselves warm.

What’s the reason for our bees dying?

The recent above-average bee losses seem to have a number of combined reasons, such as diseases, pesticides, and other environmental toxins that humans inflict on our environment. Especially chemicals that farmers spray on their crops are entering the hives of worker bees who are out collecting pollen. More so, mono-culture, that is, the mass cultivation of only one crop in an area in combination with climate change, kills the habitat of pollinating insects.

Florian Vitello – Dire forecasts say, we’ll soon be…

Dire forecasts say, we’ll soon be without fruits and vegetables because bees are dying. Is that true? #bees #beemortality #insects #NCL #UK #pollination

Sad to say, within last years, also vandalism has become an increasing problem in the UK.

Scotswood Garden on Twitter

We are absolutely devastated that our beehives were vandalised on Good Friday, leaving our 2 precious colonies of bees exposed to the cold and rain for 3 days. If anyone knows of a local bee keeper with a surplus colony or swarm please can you let us know. @NewcastleBees #bees

Another factor is the vast exchange of goods in a globalised world. This intensified trade makes it easier than ever for foreign animals to be accidentally introduced, carrying parasites or germs that leave indigenous pollinators defenseless.

Northeast under attack

This happened only recently in different cities of England’s Northeast, when the National Bee Unit confirmed a sighting of the Asian hornet in a cauliflower. The officials said:

“While the Asian Hornet poses no greater risk to human health than a bee, we recognise the damage they can cause to honey bee colonies. That’s why we are taking swift and robust action”

Since then, scientist have fought the killer Asian hornet invasion with a new high tech weapon. Tiny electronic trackers allow experts to find and destroy hidden nests and plenty of people in the UK already found some. Members of the public can also report sightings of the Asian Hornet on line with a foto.

Defra UK on Twitter

After an Asian hornet sighting confirmed in #Lancashire today, If you suspect you have seen an #AsianHornet you can report this using the iPhone and Android app ‘Asian Hornet Watch’. Find out more here: #getINNSvolved

What can each and every one of us do to save our bees?

In the light of a troublesome decline, pollinators need our help; many of their nesting sites and their wildflower food supplies have been destroyed by industrialised farming practices and urban development. To tackle this issues, Newcastle’s council has created a ‘Bee Srategy’ and promotes the ‘Newcastle and North Tyneside Biodiversity Action Plan’, which are meant to get you and me involved:

“Everyone can play a role in helping to deliver this plan. By taking action at the local level, either by forming a local community group, planting trees or simply putting up a bird box in your garden”

Bee part of it

The following 7 easy actions can help to save our bees:

1. Plant bee friendly plants in your garden or allotment

All bees coexist with flowers, they need them for their food source. So when you make your garden bloom, why not plant some beautiful bee friendly flowers? Some examples are Crocuses, hyacinths, borage, hyssops, lupine and English marigolds. If you don’t have garden-space, window boxes help as well!

2. Place a small basin of water

Along with all the stunning flowers you are going to plant, leave some possibility for the busy insects to drink, they are thirsty after a long day of pollinating.

Rhys Allen on Twitter

@Greengrumbler @britishbee @HoneyBeesUK Glad to see the girls drinking, making honey must be thirsty work. 😁

3. Less is more

Leave your garden be as natural as possible. Especially, use pesticides carefully and only when really necessary.

Blue Planet Society on Twitter

We saw hundreds of large tortoiseshell butterflies in Scotland yesterday – but mostly in untended gardens and on uncut verges. If we want our insects back, we need to stop being such control freaks.

4. Be crafty

If you’re good with your hands, you can easily recycle some old rubbish into a winter home for bumblebees.

5. Treat yourself

to some locally produced honey in order to support the work of Newcastle’s beekeepers and create an incentive for other people to adopt a beehive. Prof. Charles Xavier is already on board!

Patrick Stewart on Twitter

Since I was a child, I’ve fantasized about keeping bees, and I finally am. BeeStew! 🐝

6. But thoroughly wash used honey jars before recycling

Newcastle council warns: “Honey brought in from overseas often contains spores of a bacterial disease which, whilst not dangerous to humans, is fatal to honey bees”.

 7. And finally, keep your eyes open!

If you spot a bumble bee or one of their nests please register this on the Environmental Records Information Centre North East (ERIC)

Wild bees first!

All of the above measures contribute to the fight against insect mortality. The environment is hostile at the moment for pollinating animals. We need to create bee friendly spaces, especially in urban areas, because many pollinators come in a two way relationship with specific plants.

So each time we lose a specialised pollinator, the respective plant goes as well. That is, losing double the biodiversity. We could soon lose most of our fruits and vegetables! And whilst scientist try to work on artificial alternatives for pollination with nano-technology or micro-drones,

“We’re unlikely to get there in our lifetime and the cost could be astronomical whereas we have what is effectively a free service at the moment”

Bio diverse sites full of bloom do not only embellish metropolitan ambiances, they also ease the competitive situation between honeybees and wild pollinators. Therefore, future actions should be geared at wild pollinators first, thereby helping the honeybee as well.


Congratulations, you have reached the end of the article. Feel like an expert on bees already? Then test your knowledge

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What do you know about bees? Do you know what a pollinator is? Are bees dying out? Test your knowledge and become an expert!

Photo Credit: © Florian Vitello

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