Impact of climate change on bees and food production

Impact of climate change on bees and food production

By Sophie Turner

Three out of four crops across the globe, which produce fruits or seeds for human consumption, depend on pollinators. As one of the most important pollinators in the world, bees are crucial for food production, human livelihoods and biodiversity. Unfortunately, bees and other pollinators are declining in abundance in many parts of the world with recent figures suggesting by as much as 30 per cent per year. If this trend continues, the cost of our fruit and vegetables could significantly increase, nutritious crops will be substituted increasingly by staple crops like rice, corn, and potatoes, resulting in an imbalanced diet, and the quantity of food in the world that relies on pollination by insects would diminish.

Bees provide the majority of biotic pollination and are at risk from a multitude of factors; changes in land use, intensive agricultural practices, monocropping (growing a single crop year after year on the same land), and the use of pesticides have all contributed to large-scale losses, fragmentation and degradation of bee habitats. Pests and diseases are also a threat to bee colonies, some of which have occurred as a result of transporting bees long distances. Furthermore, higher temperatures, shifting seasons and extreme weather events are also causing problems for bees.

Their habitat range is shrinking.

As global temperatures rise, North American and European honeybee ranges are getting smaller. In their most southern habitats, bees are dying from high heat and in their most northern habitats, they are remaining mostly static, so their range is shrinking.

A shift in the seasons may cause bees to mistime their spring emergence.

Both bees and plants hone in on specific weather cues, like snow melt or air temperature, to let them know when spring has sprung. If weather patterns and temperatures shift beyond the norm, plants and bees may become out of sync, resulting in bees emerging long after the plants are ready to be pollinated. 

They are at greater risk of disease.

Bees are extremely susceptible to certain mites and gut parasites, and these parasites have been steadily increasing due to warming weather conditions. Higher temperatures and more frequent heat waves as a result of climate change, are likely to exacerbate these problems in the future, which could cause Colony Collapse and wipe out entire hives.

Globally, pollination has an estimated market value of up to $577 billion USD annually which represents about 10 percent of the global crop market. In the UK, it is estimated that insects contribute over £650 million per annum to the economy through the pollination of many commercial crops such as tomatoes, peas, apples and strawberries. Some bee species have already been lost from the UK and a lack of pollinating insects points to an increased need for hand-pollination (or innovative technology).

According to a University of Reading study, the labour costs involved in hand-pollinating UK crops without bees would cost over £1.8bn a year. This potential increase in the cost of food production would mean an increase in food prices. Given that affordable food is already an issue for many people living in poverty, this could only serve to exacerbate an already significant barrier to nutritious and sufficient diets.

Thankfully, there are measures that can be taken to reverse the decline of bees and other pollinators. Whether you are a land manager, a gardener, window-box owner or business, some simple actions include:

  • Growing more flowers, shrubs and trees that provide nectar and pollen as food for bees and other pollinators throughout the year.
  • Planting herbs and vegetables – lavender, basil, mint and tomatoes provide food for bees as well as for humans.
  • Providing water for bees to take back to the hive.
  • Avoiding disturbing or destroying nesting or hibernating insects, in places like grass margins, bare soil, hedgerows, trees, dead wood or walls.
  • Thinking carefully about the use of pesticides, especially where pollinators are active or nesting or where plants are in flower. Many people choose to avoid chemicals and adopt methods like physically removing pests or using barriers to deter them.
  • Buying locally grown, organic fruits and vegetables to support beekeepers in your area.

Farmers can also help maintain pollinator abundance, diversity and health by leaving field corners uncultivated to create a habitat for pollinators, and applying to Defra for the Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Package to help address the declines in our wild insect pollinators.

It is easy to take for granted the plants, fruit and vegetables in our fields and gardens but they could not flourish without bees and other pollinating insects carrying pollen from one flower to another. If these pollinators continue to decline, the health of our food industry would be damaged, and some of the food that is essential for a healthy diet would become a lot harder to grow, and therefore more expensive. Taking action to help these insects is therefore key to global food security and nutrition.

Cover photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash.

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