Where did all the bees go?

Farmers are already feeling the consequences of insect death. Without wild bees and other pollinators, fewer apples, cherries and blueberries end up on supermarket shelves.

“Man of work, woke up and recognize your power, all wheels stand still when your strong arm wants it,” says the founding song of the General German Workers’ Association, from which the SPD later emerged. What was true in the factories of the 19th century also seems to have significance for the modern agricultural industry: If busy bees stay away from the cultivated areas, the pollen is not distributed, fruits do not ripen, and the harvesting machines stand just as idle as the steam engines 150 years ago . However, the proletarians on the run do not go on general strike of their own free will – there are simply fewer and fewer. The death of insectsindustrial agriculture is largely responsible for it itself; Fertilizers, pesticides and the loss of natural habitats have depleted stocks worldwide.

It has long been known what serious consequences the extinction of many insects has on flora and fauna. A new study by US and Canadian researchers shows how much agriculture itself is suffering from home-made insect mortality: In the large growing areas of North America, insects no longer pollinate apple, blueberry and cherry blossoms sufficiently, which is causing harvests to shrink noticeably. The report’s 31 scientists led by biologist James Reilly in their study that this Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B has been released.

The fewer insects flew over the orchards, the fewer fruits grew on trees and bushes

The researchers systematically investigated which popular and therefore mass-grown fruits in North America suffer from a lack of bees and other pollinators. To do this, they visited 131 cultivation areas and counted honey bees, wild bees and other insects that came to flowers there. The researchers compared these figures with the crop yields of the farms they visited. In apple, cherry and blueberry farms, they found a clear connection: the fewer insects flew over the orchards, the fewer fruits grew on trees and bushes. Melons, almonds and pumpkins, however, have so far hardly been affected by insect death.

In order for the missing bees to shrink the harvests substantially, the fruits must above all be healthy. Because if diseases, pests, drought or lack of nutrients mean that fewer flowers grow anyway, the missing pollinators are of little consequence: even severely decimated swarms of bees can then cope with the comparatively few flowers.

The biologists estimate the value of the wild bee work at just under 1.3 billion euros

The researchers also found that wild bees – many species of which are threatened with extinction – and honey bees share the work fairly fairly. Even in intensively cultivated areas, the wild bees pollinated almost as many plants as honey bees bred by beekeepers. For a long time it was assumed that honey bees are more important for agricultural production than wild bees. However, a few years ago studies indicated that wild bees can do at least as much. According to the scientists, honey bees fly more frequently, but wild bees transport more pollen per flight. However, the researchers rarely observed other pollinating insects such as flies or butterflies on the plantations examined. They also play an important role elsewhere.

One thing is clear: the death of insects is causing immense economic damage. The biologists estimate the economic value of wild bee work at just under 1.3 billion euros – for the blueberry, apple, cherry, almond, melon and pumpkin cultivation in North America alone. Scientists try again and again to monetize the value of so-called eco-services such as pollination work. According to an estimate from 2008, all of humanity owes bees, bumblebees and other pollinators more than 150 billion euros for their worldwide services in fields and orchards.

First and foremost, the authors of the study recommend better protecting wild bee populations – above all by growing wild flowers. But they also mention that some farmers are now artificially pollinating their plants, be it with the help of drones or human workers. A few weeks ago, Japanese researchers even reported that they had pollinated fruit blossoms with soap bubbles containing pollen. The masterminds of the labor movement in the 19th century also foresaw that capital would replace the workers as soon as technical progress allows it. Unlike factory workers, however, there are no new jobs for wild bees – their extinction would be irreversible and the damage to nature considerable.

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