Reversing the great global bee ​decline

Bees mean honey right?

Well yes and no.

Yes, we have exploited and managed bees for their delicious byproduct for millennia. Besides a great tasting and relatively healthy sweetener, honey and bees are used for other purposes.

The ancient Egyptians used honey for its antibiotic and wound healing properties. Indeed interest in the antibiotic qualities of honey has recently spiked with the availability of Manuka honey and its fabled extra special antibiotic action.

Hieroglyph of ancient Egyptian beekeeping

But no, honey isn’t the only benefit from bees. The other key benefit is – pollination.

Most plants require the movement of pollen between flowers and individuals to set their seed, this task is performed by bees and other pollinators (insects, birds and even bats and mammals).

Because bees pollinate some of our major crops – berries, apples, pears, avocados, melons – bees contribute massively to our production economies. The value of these ‘pollination services’ in Australia is valued at more than $6.5 billion pa, and is fundamental to the harvest of many fruit, nut, seed and oil crops.

With the global price of honey coming down, not least due to the flooding of international markets with cheap ‘honey’ adulterated with corn or rice syrup extracts, profits made by selling pollination services can match or even outstrip profits made from honey. This is particularly the case for highly pollination-dependent, high-value crops such as almonds.

Interestingly, in some countries, it is even profitable to have labourers hand pollinate crops. Gruen, The Pitch (Series 10, Episode 6) ran a skit on this issue to highlight that if all the bees died out people would have to take on jobs pollinating plants, but this practice has existed for centuries.

Hand pollination of apple flowers in China (image Huffington Post)

But hived bees, mainly the European honey bee, only provide a relatively small fraction of the overall pollination services for crops, and across the world’s natural ecosystems.

Most crop pollination is provided by wild pollinators, which include feral honeybees (European honeybees that now live in wild colonies as compared to managed hives), native bees, flies, beetles and other insects, which are also the major pollinators in natural systems.

But globally there has been a decline in bee abundance and diversity, and the incidence of colony collapse disorder – basically the death of a hive and its bees – is on the rise. Several significant factors are interacting to place stress on bees and hives, including the clearance of native habitat, pesticides, parasites and diseases, climate change and even the declining mental health of bees.

Heres a pretty neat video that explains some of the key issues.

Certainly, the declining plight of bees has been previously highlighted (the Great British Bee Count), and there have been some pretty dire warnings, such as the collapse of society within 4 years, if bees died out. That might be a bit extreme, but we would certainly have difficulty finding a good cup of coffee – which is pretty serious.

There are several lines we can investigate to find solutions for these problems, but perhaps one of the best is to look at options to help keep bees healthy through diet.

Recently David Attenborough (#savethebees) has suggested a more proactive approach. If we find tired bees we can let them sip a sugar solution to give them some energy and help revive them. But rather than the simple sugar found on our tables (sucrose), bees also like to mix it up with fructose and glucose, and they also need protein to grow. We could look into providing them with life-reviving ‘bee smoothies’, where we could mix table sugar into fruit juice – to get the right mix of sugars – and then throw in some whey protein for good measure and a balanced diet.

However perhaps a more long-term solution, and one which also gives us some benefit, is to plant a range of flowering plants around our gardens so that pollen (protein) and nectar (sugars) are available to bees at different times of the year, and through the seasons (although bees tend not to be active in winter).

This idea can also be extended to establishing pollinator supporting habitat around crops so that the numbers of bees is increased, particularly prior to crop flowering. Such plantings would also help support our native bees, of which there are an estimated 2500 in Australia.

This appears to be a good idea, at least in theory, as we know for example that the density and diversity of pollinators increases as you get closer to natural vegetation, crop yield can be enhanced through planting native plants, and the health of both native bees and honey bees increases as the diversity of native vegetation increases.

Pollination researchers, crop managers and restoration project officers can find common ground to avert a global meltdown in pollination capability. By including considerations of bee food in habitat plantings, the local abundance of pollinators can be increased and is expected to have an economic spin-off for growers and consumers of pollination-dependent crops.

We are underway with a large multi-partner project to examine these issues and establish, for the first time, large-scale trials to test the efficiency of pollination plantations on crop productivity and bee health and diversity – see video below.

Also, I’m attending the Australian Bee Congress ( this week in the Gold Coast when a group of us will talk about these issues, including:

Assessing honey bee colony densities at landscape scales

Dr Ben Oldroyd will deliver:

  • ‘How many bees do we need and how many do we have’ as part of the ‘Pollination – Helping beekeepers and growers maximise profits’ session. Thursday 28 June, Session 1, 9:30am.

Dr Tanya Latty will deliver:

  • ‘How many bees in the bush? Estimating social bee densities in crops’ as part of the ‘Symposium on pollination for profit – how this program is positioning Australia’s bees for growth in agriculture’ session. Friday 29 June, Session 6, 12.10pm.

Securing crop pollination through vegetation

Prof Andrew Lowe will deliver:

  • ‘Working with native habitat to improve pollinator services’ as part of the ‘How can we design agricultural landscapes to maximise pollinator efficacy?’ session. Friday 29 June, Session 5, 9am.
  • ‘Plant pollination networks – DNA barcoding applications’ as part of the ‘Symposium on pollination for profit – how this program is positioning Australia’s bees for growth in agriculture’ session. Friday 29 June, Session 6, 12:30pm.

Dr Katja Hogendoorn will deliver:

  • ‘Tailoring revegetation to enhance crop pollination: timing, rewards and crop rotations’ as part of the ‘How can we design agricultural landscapes to maximise pollinator efficacy?’ session. Friday 29 June, Session 5, 10am.
  • ‘Marketing revegetation for crop pollinators’ as part of the ‘Symposium on pollination for profit – how this program is positioning Australia’s bees for growth in agriculture’ session. Friday 29 June, Session 6, 11:50am.

The efficiency of crop-pollinating insects in Australia

Prof Saul Cunningham (ANU) will deliver:

  • ‘What part will crop pollination play in future agriculture?’ as part of the ‘Symposium on pollination for profit – how this program is positioning Australia’s bees for growth in agriculture’ session. Friday 29 June, Session 6, 10:50am.

Dr Romina Rader (UNE) will deliver:

  • ‘The identity and effectiveness of Australian crop pollinators – status and trends’ as part of the ‘Symposium on pollination for profit – how this program is positioning Australia’s bees for growth in agriculture’ session. Friday 29 June, Session 6, 11:30am.
  • ‘The pollination contribution of stingless bees to 5 Australian crops’ as part of the ‘Symposium on the pollination contribution of stingless bees – what are the key impediments to developing a successful industry?’ session. Saturday 30 June, Session 11, 1:30pm.

The Congress runs from 27 – 30 June 2018 at RACV Royal Pines Resort, Gold Coast. The full Program Outline can be found at

Thanks to Katja Hogendoorn for fact-checking this blog

Media follow up: The Land

The project described above and entitled ‘Securing Pollination for More Productive Agriculture: Guidelines for effective pollinator management and stakeholder adoption’ is supported by AgriFutures Australia through funding from the Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources as part of its Rural R&D for Profit program, as well as Horticulture Innovation Australia, Australian National University, University of Adelaide, University of New England, University of Sydney, Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges Natural Resources Management Board, Almond Board of Australia, Apple and Pear Growers Association (SA), Australian Mango Industry Association, Australian Melon Association, Costa, Department of Environment Water and Natural Resources SA, Greening Australia, Lucerne Australia, Native Vegetation Council, Natural Resources Northern and Yorke, O’Connor NRM, Primary Industries and Resources SA, Raspberries and Blackberries Australia, South Australian Apiarist Association, Terrestrial Ecosystems Research Network Eco-informatics and Trees For Life.

Published by Prof Andy Lowe

Prof Andy Lowe is a British-Australian scientist and expert in plants and trees, particularly the management of genetic, biological and ecosystem resources. He has discovered lost forests, championed to eliminate illegally logged timber in global supply chains, served the United Nation’s Office of Drugs and Crime and is a lead author of the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – Land Degradation and Restoration report. He has helped secure a quarter of a billion dollars worth of research funding in his field and is an experienced and respected executive leader, board member, as well as mid-career mentor. Andy is a passionate science communicator, he has been Scientist in Residence at The Australian Financial Review and the Advertiser and is a regular author, speaker and podcast host.

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