Busy Bees: Tiny Yet Mighty!

In celebration of World Bee Day on the 20th of May, we’ve collaborated with the Deputy President of the Royal Veterinary College’s (RVC) Beekeeping Society, Alex Lesniak, to celebrate some of our hardest working insects on the planet! In this blog post we will touch on why Alex loves working with bees and delve into the importance of bees in our society. We’ll also provide links to some great resources on bees.

What made you decide to become a member of the Beekeeping Society at RVC?

I have kept bees personally since I was 12 years old. Therefore, it wasn’t really a question for me when I heard there was another student forming a club at the RVC Freshers Fair I was helping at. My family not only keeps bees but also runs Peace Bees, our family business that I had founded. My friends were shocked it wasn’t me forming the club! I was excited to see the interest that the club was getting; there were lots of students interested in bees! I contacted the president and offered my assistance to the club in any way I could and the rest is history. Now I am the Deputy President!

What’s your favourite fact about bees?

Honey bees are so fascinating that it is hard to pick one but I would have to say my favorite fact is that their honeycomb cells are actually not hexagons! They are truly circles, but when put side by side, they come together due to something called deformational physics. If you look closely in a cell, you can see it’s really a circle at the base. If you think about when bubbles meet and form together, it makes a lot of sense!

What are some misconceptions that people have about bees?

There are sadly a lot. The biggest misconception is that they are mean and want to sting you. A trick to tell if you were stung by a honey bee specifically is to see if you have a stinger left in your skin. They are the only bees that leave the stinger due to barbs that get caught in your skin and unfortunately means part of their abdomen is torn off with it and they die soon after the sting. So they truly don’t want to sting you. The best thing is to calmly walk away and don’t swat them away. Another misconception is that all bees live in hives. Only a small percentage of bees are social and live together in hives, like the honeybee. Non-social bee species often make a home of underground tunnels or trees. Finally, a lot of people think that honey is actually vomit from the honey bee. However, they have two stomachs, one that is more like a holding vat that does not have any digestive enzymes, where the nectar is stored, making honey more ‘regurgitated’ from the nectar storage.

Which species of bees are most endangered in the UK?

Not being native to the UK myself, this is something I had to look into admittedly. There are 25 different species listed as threatened right now. However, the honey bee itself is globally in danger. The British Bee Coalition is a great resource about this. The European Red List for Bees has a great report that goes into detail about what specific species are under threat. They report one in ten species of wild bees are facing extinction.

What is the importance of making sure we still have bees?

It may sound extreme to some, but every single species of animal is a crucial part of our planet. The intricate web of the ecosystem relies on each of these to survive and promote a healthy environment. The biggest impact bees make is through pollination. Over ⅓ of crops/what we eat, is thanks to the honey bee pollinating. That is like one of your three daily meals vanishing because the bees are gone. Some foods like blueberries and cherries are almost pollinated by only honey bees but almonds are 100% exclusively pollinated by the honey bee. Without them, there would be no almonds! For those who eat meat and dairy, honey bees pollinate some of the crops that cattle eat to grow. This means that without honey bees, the food industry would struggle to produce things like hamburgers and ice cream! Honey is also a very valuable resource for nutrition and health as it contains properties to promote healing and keep away infections, used in both human and animal medicine!

What is the impact that bees have on the environment? Why should we all care?

To continue with what was said above, pollination is a huge factor for the environment. Pollination is not only for food crops, but also for habit plants that are needed to feed and house wildlife and keep a healthy ecosystem. Healthy ecosystems are vital to keeping our planet healthy against pollution and other climate change factors. As far as why should we care, well I would say the biggest factor is simple: save the bees, save your food.

A few years ago there were a lot of news articles about falling numbers of bee populations. Now we don’t hear so much about this. Has it resolved? Or are they still in danger of extinction?

Part of this is because of the media. Almost every news outlet was covering this because it was such an important and hot topic. The issue is, a lot of what is needed to help correct this issue is either unknown, or part of a wider, bigger issue. Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD is what most people were hearing about. While not 100% sure, we can safely say that the leading cause of beekeepers finding their hives void of bees, was due to pesticide use. The chemicals really mess up their nervous system and it’s thought they ‘forget’ how to return to the hive. Pesticides, along with climate change and habitat loss are such large issues, that I think people are working on those big factors now that almost everyone knows the bees are in danger.

If you could name one thing, what do you think is the leading factor contributing to the decline in our bee population?

Pesticides, specifically neonicotinoids. Bees and other pollinators can be exposed to these pesticides via direct contact, residues in material found in their hives, or in the pollen/nectar of seed-treated plants. Long-term exposure to non-lethal doses of neonicotinoids cause major disturbances of important behaviors in bees, like reducing foraging behavior, making it difficult to return home, and impairing communication with fellow bees. They can also delay bee development and make them more susceptible to diseases. Pesticides are extremely harmful to a bee’s nervous system and it’s painful to watch. I have seen bees come back to the hive and basically seizuring until they die after being in an area that had been sprayed. It’s very sad.

How can we, as school or university students, help the bee population recover? What if we don’t have a garden of our own?

Believe it or not, it’s easier than one may think! First, stay educated and go to talks like those from your local bee clubs. Then, you can help educate others, especially those who have gardens. Sharing and signing petitions to lobby for banning pesticide use is another simple way to help. Finally, being as green as you can and supporting local beekeepers. Local beekeepers tend to not use artificial feeding methods and so their bees are more likely to fight off parasites, illnesses, and pesticide residues. Plus, supporting them, helps them continue to keep bees and grow the population! As for being green, climate change is a big issue with bees as winters and weather fluctuations are making it harder for bees to survive winter or other weather extremes.

Has there been any impacts of COVID-19 or BREXIT on the bee keeping community and bee populations?

If anything, people being stuck at home has created more beekeepers! I have heard of a lot of people deciding to get into beekeeping because of COVID. As for BREXIT, no matter your political beliefs, it has been bad for bees thus far. Just this last February, 15 million bees were threatened to be destroyed because of new import rules. The bees were coming from Italy, where it is warmer, which is a common practice. BREXIT has made a ban on bringing in bees from Europe into mainland England which will have a serious impact on beekeepers and the bee population. The other things at stake include the legalities behind the use of certain medicines for treating diseases in bees, funding bee health inspectors important for bee health and prevention of disease, and most terrifying, the previous bans on pesticide use.

What would you say to individuals that claim ‘they don’t eat honey, so bee populations have no effect on their lives’? How are they wrong?

I would send them up to my answer on how bees are responsible for over ⅓ of what we eat and their environmental importance. Basically, if you live on this planet and eat food, you have bees to thank for it. :)

Here are some interesting and important resources on bees!

Written by: Alex Lesniak

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