The delicate balance of Bees

Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Development Goals

Biodiversity conservation represents a persistent global challenge confronting the designed Sustainable Development Goals of United Nations to achieve synergy between human well-being and the maintenance of environmental resources by 2030. As well as, there is an ever-increasing demand for food security in the face of challenges like climate change, land-use changes, expanding human population, and habitat transformation. Bees play a key role in maintaining biodiversity and mitigating climate change through pollination.

The Role of Pollination in Agriculture

Proper pollination can improve both quantity and quality of crops, fruits, nuts, oils, and other agricultural products. Crop pollination occurs through animal pollinators as bats, birds, insects (bees, beetles, moths, hoverflies, wasps, thrips, and butterflies), wind and water. Bees and other pollinators contribute to 35 percent of the world’s total crop production.

Economic Impact and Dominance of Bees Among Pollinators

Insect pollination provided EUR 153 billion, representing 9.5% of the total economic value of agricultural production used directly for human food. Although bees are not the most diverse group of pollinators (butterflies and moths comprise over 140 000 species), they are the most dominant taxonomic group amongst pollinators. This is attributed to the ability of bees to transport large numbers of pollen grains on their hairy bodies and the semi-social or eu-social nature of some species of bees.

Nutritional and Medicinal Benefits of Bee Products

The importance of bee pollination for food crops has been widely acknowledged. Bee-pollinated crops contribute to approximately one-third of the total human dietary supply. It contributes to the global food supply of a wide range of crops, including fruits, vegetables, oilseeds, legumes, etc. besides, bee pollination enhances nutritional value and improved quality and longer shelf life of many fruits and vegetables, which could potentially help in reducing food waste.

With approximately 20,000 species distributed across seven families, buzzing from flower to flower, they stand as the primary pollinators not only for ecosystems but also for agricultural crops. They directly impact the yield and quality of about 85% of flowering plants and 75% of globally significant crop types such as coffee, cocoa, and oilseeds, making food security and diversity heavily reliant on their labor. To demonstrate the close relationship between bee activity and the diversity of flora, over the past 50 years, comparisons have been made between crops highly dependent on pollinators and those with low dependence. The result has been clear: all crops where bees were utilized as a resource exhibited more than doubled agricultural species variability compared to those with scarce or absent bee activity. It is, therefore, evident that a potential loss of bee populations would automatically translate into a catastrophic loss in productivity for both agriculture and biodiversity.

Besides its crucial role for pollination, bees constitute one of the essential components for proper functioning of the ecosystem and the survival of all its habitants, including humans. The importance and benefits of this unique insect are countless. Bees provide numerous benefits through the production of diverse products related to beekeeping with incredible nutritional and medicinal properties, such as honey, pollen, beeswax, propolis, royal jelly, and bee venom.

Honey is a natural sweet and fragrant product, derived from the processing that bees perform on pollen. It has always been used for its nutritional values, representing a rich source of macro- and micro-nutrients. Beyond its gastronomic value, this product has been recognized since ancient times for its healing properties.

Honey has antimicrobial activity because of its high concentration of sugars, low pH, a high content of hydrogen peroxide, and other compounds such as polyphenols.

The Greeks and Egyptians already used it topically to treat wounds and burns, while traditional Persian medicine emphasized its effectiveness in treating eczema and inflammations. Nowadays, its use in the medical field is increasingly frequent and applicable in various areas, due to its antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties.

In modern medicine, honey is used in wound and ulcer care, to enhance oral health, fight gastric disorders, and liver and pancreatic diseases, as well as to promote cardiovascular health. Recently, some studies demonstrated that honey can exert anti-proliferative effects against cancerous cells and can be used to support and regulate the functioning of the male and female reproductive systems. Finally, although currently under study, its use seems to be efficient in the treatment of bronchial asthma and arteriosclerosis. Propolis is used in oral health, dermatological and gynaecological care, and oncology treatments. While royal jelly is used in reproductive care, neurodegenerative and aging diseases, and wound healing.

In Italy, the National Observatory estimated a honey production of around 24,000 tons in 2022, with a total value of 144 million euros, showcasing its significant role in agriculture and the local economy.

Threats to Bee Populations and the Need for Protection

Despites all mentioned benefits, why there isn’t enough discussion about bees and the necessary measures to protect them. There are significant loss of managed honey bee colonies and wild bee pollinators continue to decline, particularly in Europe and North America. This global decline in bee populations will impact on provisioning ecosystem services. It is attributed to the rampant use of pesticides and other environmental factors like climate change, habitat loss, proliferation of parasites, availability and diversity of forage, change in land use, and species competition.

Unfortunately, these agents often act synergistically, worsening the condition of exposed insects, bringing them to sub-lethal or even lethal levels. For instance, intensification of intensive agriculture systems reduces floral diversity, which consequently reduces pollen variability and alters the prevalence of afflicting pathogens, which results in production of low-quality honey. Widespread use of pesticides compromises the ability of bees to take flight, pollinate crops, and decrease responsiveness to light/dark variation, and consequently affecting longevity. Being ectothermic insects and closely dependent on ambient temperatures for all their vital processes, climate change alters the rhythm of bees and drastically compromising their health and reproductive capacity through a direct action. An indirect action affects the flowering times: for successful pollination, it requires spatial and temporal coordination between the plant and the bee; temperature changes cause asynchrony between these two parts, leading to a reduction in available food resources. Additionally, extreme weather events, such as floods, disturb and alter their activities.  

Adapting to Challenges and Future Prospects

However, bees are adapting their behaviors and habits to confront these challenges. Scientists observe changes in flight patterns, reproductive periods, and migratory routes. While these adaptations demonstrate the remarkable resilience of these insects, they also raise questions about the long-term impact of such changes on ecosystem dynamics and their survival.

In the United States, a series of studies conducted in recent years on local bee colonies have shown an alarming prospect for the future: by 2035, if we do not intervene, bees will face complete extinction.

Finally, beekeepers are facing new challenges represented by the need to adapt to landscape changing that turns beekeeping into a battle for survival. Therefore, it would be necessary to develop a monitoring system for production and risk factors, control use of pesticides, promote sustainable agricultural practices, increase crop diversification, create infrastructure suitable for habitat conservation, and promote consumer and institutional education.

In conclusion, our relationship with bees and their golden honey should extend far beyond mere culinary pleasure or economic returns. Bees are the main pollinators of plants, and improve both quality and quantity of fruits, nuts, and oils. Bee colonies are faced with many challenges that influence their growth, reproduction, and sustainability. Reductions in global bee populations are threatening the pollination benefits to both the planet and people. It will require increasing public awareness of the importance of bees for pollination, encourage efforts to protect bees and conserve bee habitats, and support pro-pollinator initiatives in land management, agricultural diversification and urban greening. Finally, designing bee-friendly policies and initiatives to promote beekeeping and pollination services.

“If we do not intervene, bees will face ghost of extinction;

Beekeepers are not custodians only of honey but also of ecosystems dependent on these pollinating insects;

We must ensure that buzzing of bees never transforms into irreversible silence”

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