Where have all the bees gone?

Across Europe and the Americas, bees are flying off to collect nectar but not coming back. Not only does this startling loss threaten the natural world, it also poses a $15bn problem for food producers.

Across Europe and the Americas, bees are flying off to collect nectar but not coming back. This startling loss threatens the natural world - and human food production

How old is beekeeping?

Older than recorded history. The earliest evidence of beekeeping comes from rock paintings dating from around 13,000 BC. It was practised widely by the ancient Egyptians, Aristotle discusses Ancient Greek beekeeping at length, and ancient Roman techniques are described by writers such as Virgil, Varro, and Columella. The bee was one of the first creatures domesticated by humans and was among the first species of livestock Europeans introduced into America in the 17th century. Agricultural writer Gervase Markham wrote in 1638: Of all the creatures which are fit for the use of man, there is nothing more necessary, wholesome, or more profitable than the bee.'

What's so great about them?

Bees produce many useful products with little encouragement from humans. We provide them with an attractive nest in which to live - a hive. In return they naturally produce more honey than they need so as to survive through the winter. Bees work sensationally hard. In one summer, a worker bee, fetching nectar from up to 100 flowers on each trip away from the hive, will produce just a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. To make a standard pound jar, the bees will have clocked up some 55,000 airmiles and sniffed two million flowers. It's a good deal for us - yet their honey is far from being their most important product.

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What else do they make?

Originally used purely for honey, beekeeping nowadays produces pollen, royal jelly and propolis (used for nutritional and medicinal purposes), and beeswax (used in making candles, cosmetics, wood polish and in modelling). Without bees carrying pollen from plant to plant as they gather nectar to make honey, hundreds of types of flowers, fruits and vegetables would die out. It wasn't until the 18th century that the horticulturalist Philip Miller recognised that pollen was not spread by the wind, but by bees. A few years later, scientists realised that flowering plants (including fruit and vegetables) produced nectar specifically to attract pollinating insects to spread their seeds. This threat, of humans going hungry or having to adapt to a world without vegetables and fruit, is why colony collapse disorder is drawing such attention.

What is colony collapse disorder?

Beekeepers are used to finding some hives empty or full of dead bees after the winter hibernation. Each year around one in seven colonies (hives) dies naturally or from diseases. But this year, something different and unexplained is happening. Reports of abnormally large losses began in Florida in November - and estimates of current overall losses range from 30% to 60% on the West Coast of the US to as much as 90% in East Coast States and Texas. The phenomenon has been christened colony collapse disorder because apparently healthy bees are abandoning their hives so suddenly - within a matter of days - and flying off to die. Moreover, nearby bees are not moving in to ransack honey from abandoned colonies, as would be expected.

Is this confined to the US?

No. It's worst in the US, where honey production is worth $200m a year and bees are needed to pollinate $15bn worth of fruit, veg and nuts - in particular the $2bn almond business. But colony collapse disorder is also hitting Europe, with severe losses in Poland, Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Switzerland. Cases have also appeared in Brazil and Guatemala. In the UK, some beekeepers have seen catastrophic collapses of more than 50% of colonies, especially in southeast England. However, government officials maintain that overall losses are running at around 22% compared with the average of 15% - still within normal limits - and regard talk of colony collapse as scaremongering.

What's causing colony collapse?

No one knows for sure. Diana Cox-Foster, a US entomologist investigating the crisis, says the range of possible theories - pesticides, malnutrition, antibiotics, mites, rising solar radiation - is 'mind-boggling'. Some say commercial practices may be to blame - US bees do not appear to like being transported around the country - but this cannot explain all cases. Scientists are focusing on the three most likely suspects: a virus, a fungus or a pesticide (a class known as neonicotinoids is of particular concern). But an answer may be months away. Whatever the cause, the future for bees is not looking rosy. The world's bee population is already down about 60% since 1970. And even before colony collapse appeared six months ago, an American Academy of Sciences panel concluded that bees were suffering from so many diseases that beekeeping may die out as a business by 2035. So start stockpiling almonds.

How to attract bees

A thriving garden, fruit tree or vegetable patch needs bees - and here's how to attract them. First, have early-flowering plants to attract a queen during spring. Having woken up for the summer, she's looking for a nest and lots of flowers to feed the workers, so make it easy for her. If you don't want the effort and expense of providing a hive, at least leave a corner of your garden messy, with unturned earth. That way bees are more likely to find a nice spot for a nest. Willows are a huge early hit with bumblebees, as are lilacs. And bees love a diverse menu, so if possible go for both shrubs and fruit trees, and especially herbs. Bees absolutely love rosemary, thyme, sage, parsley and blue basil. 14 11 May 2007

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published Customers.com, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.