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Don't swat that bee!

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Bee collecting pollen

"What are you doing?" I yelped at a neighbour arranging bowls on a potluck table. She was pointing a bug spray can -- at a honeybee. "Just keeping the bees away from the food on the table," she said. But seeing my face, she stopped and added, "Just chasing them away."

Maybe she hadn't heard about the great honey bee die-off of 2006 and 2007, when beekeepers across the U.S. began to report that 30 to 60 per cent of their bees had died mysteriously, due to a devastating malady dubbed Colony Collapse Disordern (CCD).

Or maybe she had heard about the "American Council on Science and Health" report, which concluded "CCD, which lasted for about three to five years, is a sudden phenomenon in which the majority of worker bees mysteriously disappear. That problem, which showed up most dramatically in California, abated by 2011." 

Uh, no the problem didn't abate. "This trend continued to worsen over consecutive years," says a 2016 Vice News report, "and 5,000 beekeepers in the U.S. had lost a shocking 44 per cent of their honey bee colonies between 2015 and 2016."

But there's a much bigger problem, says Vice. "...In addition to CCD of domestic bee populations, wild honey bees and other pollinator species -- such as butterflies, birds, and beetles -- are also dying off at unprecedented rates. Thousands of bee species once flourished throughout the U.S., but now face possible extinction in the near future due to pesticide use, pathogens, and climate change. According to a recent environmental survey, one third of wild bumblebee populations, for example, are currently on the decline." 

Vice's headline states the situation dramatically: "Honey Bee Extinction Will Change Life As We Know It: If bees disappear, so will all of life's modern luxuries." Unfortunately, this headline probably understates the situation.

"Insects, which comprise two thirds of all terrestrial species, have been dying off at alarming rates, with disastrous impacts on food chains and habitats, researchers say," according to a July 1 article in Phys.org.

In Germany, the Amateur Entomology Society of Krefeld has been collecting insect specimens at 63 locations since 1982. In that time, the biomass (weight) of the insects they collect has shrunk by 76 per cent. "To demonstrate the rapid decline, a lab technician holds up two bottles: one from 1994 contains 1,400 grammes of trapped insects, the newest one just 300 grammes."

Australian researchers synthesized the Krefeld data with a meta-study on world fauna over the last 40 years, and concluded that 40 percent of insect species are threatened with extinction, with another one percent added every year.

"Factors behind the decline include, perhaps foremost among them, habitat changes wrought by humans, such as deforestation, and conversion of natural habitats for agriculture," reported National Geographic in February this year. The disappearance of small farms, wetlands and wide meadows leaves fewer homes for insects. Also implicated are "chemicals like herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides.

"Insecticides, unsurprisingly, hurt non-target species, and neonicotinoids have been implicated in the worldwide decline of bees. Pesticides may play a role in one-eighth of the species' declines featured in the study...." Other factors include the climate crisis, droughts, invasive species, parasites, and diseases.   

In 2012, the United Nations established the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) to monitor species decline, much as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) monitors the climate crisis.

Last April, the IPBES issued a news release stating that, "Nature's Dangerous Decline 'Unprecedented'; Species Extinction Rates 'Accelerating'" The report found that "around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history."

For the first time, IPBES pointed to the challenges pressing some species towards extinction. Although many observers blame pesticides, the IPBES reported that, "These culprits are, in descending order: (1) changes in land and sea use; (2) direct exploitation of organisms (eg, trucking honeybees around to pollinate farms); (3) climate change; (4) pollution and (5) invasive alien species."

Insects are "the lever pullers of the world," author David McNeal explained in a National Geographic article, and worth an estimated $57 billion a year to the US. First, "...they are the base of the food chain for fish, birds, or mammals. Pest controlling insects add a further half billion. And there is no way to account for how much it costs to recycle a dead body or decomposed plant life."

On the other hand, most of us tend to take insects for granted, or even to try to eliminate them for fairly trivial reasons, such as buzzing too close to the potluck table. Without the pollinators, we wouldn't have most of the fruits and vegetables we enjoy during Canada's too short summer. This Earthday campaign page suggests ways that ordinary people can get involved with preserving insect life, particularly the bees.

Other species extinctions are already underway, and could only accelerate if there are no insects for insectovores to eat. Indeed, scientists say we are already in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction since the Earth first bore life. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring may be upon us in a few years. Perhaps it's time to adopt a new motto: Don't squash that bug! 

Planting a trillion trees globally might avert the Bugapocalypse or Insectagedon. No doubt there are other ways to preserve the Earth's six-legged and eight-legged scavengers. As David McNeal said, "Bug extinction is one of the most extensive extinctions on the planet. It's scary because you don't notice it until it's too late."

By Jon Sullivan/Wikimedia Commons 

How to save the bees

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