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Inside a bee sanctuary’s fight to save colonies – and the world’s food supply – from collapse


On a seven-acre plot of land in upstate New York, an expansive lawn juts up behind a brown cottage, gently sloping down into the woods.

The smell of honey and mixed flowers permeates the air. Dew rests on the floral surroundings, on the blades of grass, and on the pine needles of the nearby trees.

And bees, catered to and theoretically in an ideal habitat where they can flourish, are still dying en masse.

“It’s like a desert,” Guillaume Gauthereau, the founder and executive director of the New York Bee Sanctuary, said this past August, gesturing to the lush grass as those same bees swirled around. The difference at the sanctuary, however, is that Gauthereau has carefully cultivated a habitat full of vegetation around that grass that gives bees the opportunity to thrive.

Gauthereau presented his own backyard as a reference point to something more concerning. In an age where the picturesque image of prosperity and security remains one of well-kept front yards and suburbs, and a fridge well stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables, the exact means to create that picture of ease are threatening its very existence.

Well-kept grass leaves little for bees to pollinate. Massive farms devoted to single crops don’t provide the diversity that bees need to flourish. Climate change, the product the very industrialisation and advancement that has created the conditions necessary for the well-trimmed and quiet blocks, is introducing stresses that are threatening those bees.

“If it weren’t for bees, I would have no fruits or vegetables in my garden – none,” Gauthereau said. “They are incapable without bees.”

He’s not the only one.

More than $15bn (£11.1bn) a year in American food crops are pollinated by bees, and bees provide as much as $150m in honey annually. But colony collapse is threatening that food supply, which accounts for roughly 30 per cent of what we eat.

Estimates indicate that over 25 per cent of managed honey bee populations – just one type of bee among many – have disappeared since 1990. The exact reason, if there is one single cause to blame at all, hasn’t yet been named, but that confluence of factors has generally been seen as creating something of a storm that has damaged the ability of those populations to thrive.

“In the long term, as these insects get fewer and farther between, the more and more expensive these foods we like to eat will be,” said Nicole Miller-Struttmann, an expert in ecology and population biology and an assistant professor at Webster University.

“So, with this dramatic increase in the costs of growing these crops, we could have less access to the nutrients that those crops have, and have a much less diverse array of things that actually support our own nutrition,” Miller-Struttmann continued. “So there are potentially long-term health benefits that could be diminished.”

Both Gauthereau and Miller-Struttmann say that there are things that individuals can do to help create environments where bees can thrive, however. Initiatives have already been undertaken by countries like France, where highway medians are allowed to grow and create environments for pollinators, instead of cutting the grass close, for instance. Individuals can do the same thing, and maintain plant life in their gardens that provide pollinating opportunities for bees, they say.

The New York Bee Sanctuary, which Guathereau opened after quitting a corporate job in New York City, aims to educate people about those possibilities, and to provide an example of what can be done.

“It has an impact on our food chain,” he said shortly after presenting a honeycomb, and scooping out a glob of rich, golden honey. “It has an impact on food security, which we’ll all experience. It’s pretty scary.”

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