Futurology says you really can have too many bees!
Even the most indifferent to environmental issues and our native flora and fauna would have to be blind and deaf not to have registered the torrent of bad news about the dramatic and worrying decline in bee population numbers over the last few years.
So how could you possibly have too many bees?
We know of course that bee colonies are trucked all over the USA to pollinate crops as each comes into flower each year.
But until I came to write this post, I for one was completely unaware that right now millions of bees are being shipped around the globe to work their pollination magic. Here in the UK it seems we import 40,000-50,000 colonies each year. And global bee commerce continues to expand.
This is a problem for at least two reasons:
- The colonies – provided by a handful of global suppliers – are screened for diseases and parasites, but that screening is not foolproof. And the imported bees hosting pathogens can and do spread their unwanted ‘guests’ to the local populations with disastrous results. “The effects include killing bees outright, or harming their ability to learn, which is crucial in finding food. In Argentina, imported parasites are driving native species to extinction.”¹ As the trade exports the industrious little insects to ever more locations, the danger of harmful effects on native bees and food security increases.
- As well as putting their local cousins at risk, the imported bees, by pollinating invasive non-native plant species, are likely to accelerate their dispersion with unknowable effects on local biodiversity.
So I guess the problem isn’t exactly having too many bees per se, but too many bees on the move carrying pathogens to all corners of the world. It’s ironic but perturbing that an industry that’s mushroomed in response to an ever-widening pollinator shortage, will likely itself exacerbate the downward trend.
A big conservation problem then. One of five recently identified as global environmental risks by an international team of experts in science communication, research and horizon scanning. Horizon scanning (otherwise known as Futurology or Future Studies) is a collaborative process of assembling all available data in a particular field to identify future trends, both positive and negative.
While in an ideal world the crystal ball would reveal zero future environmental risks, it’s good to know at least that this particular expert team – undertaking their horizon-scanning in the field of species and ecosystems – pinpointed just 5 key risks, but twice as many hopeful opportunities. And as I’m keen to make this week a week of hope, I’ll list the remaining 4 risks in brief so we can get on to the good stuff.
1 Sand scarcity I don’t know about you, but this is one possible problem I wouldn’t have imagined. “Sand is used in a diverse range of industries and as the human population increases so does the demand for sand. Impacts of sand mining include loss of species, degradation of habitats and social conflict”.
2 Border fences affecting wild animals The impenetrable wall between the USA and Mexico promised by President Trump would adversely affect desert bighorn sheep, the endangered North American jaguar, the ocelot – now down to the last 50 in southern Texas and the cougar (pictured here).
“In total it’s estimated that 111 endangered species could suffer as a result of Trump’s wall, as well as 108 species of migratory birds.” Sadly the trend is not confined to the USA. The increased use of border fencing in Europe and elsewhere will have similar detrimental effects on the movement, migration and survival of wild animal species.²
3 Changes in waste management affecting wild animals Another trend that wouldn’t spring immediately to mind – closing or covering rubbish dumps. That might sound like a positive, but will be bad news for wildlife scavengers habituated to this ready food supply.
4 Wind speeds at the sea surface are increasing data indicates, and so is the frequency of gales. The effect on seabirds and migrating marine animals is an unknown, but unlikely to be beneficial.
Bad news is always unwelcome I know. But even the bad can have its good side. If it throws the spotlight on to a problem, we can start looking for solutions. Take science’s revelation about the damage to marine life from plastic microbeads. The data that surfaced in 2010 was troubling to say the least, but bringing it to light did bring about quite speedy international action in the form of bans on their use.
Now that’s out the way we can, as promised, get to the good stuff – 10 new conservation opportunities opened up to us by advances in science and technology:
1 A new biological discovery: strains of Symbodinium (unicellular algae) found in coral reefs are resistant to heat and could hopefully be manipulated to protect reefs from the bleaching effect of rising temperatures in the ocean.
2 An underwater robot called COTSbot has been very successful at controlling the crown-of-thorn starfish responsible for 40% of the damage to the Great Barrier Reef in the last 30 years. Robotics offer the prospect of more environmental wins. Watch COTSbot in action below.
3 The portable 3D-printed electronic ‘dogs’ nose, bizarre as it sounds, works even better than the real thing. It will provide a major new asset for sniffing out illegal wildlife goods, especially at border crossings, and offers the potential to disrupt major black market trade routes. That would be huge.
4 As a result of advances in genetic screening and engineering bacteria and fungi can now be used for biological pest control and growth stimulation treatments, averting the need to use artificial chemicals that harm biodiversity.
5 Ah, we’ve hit a snag. With this one it seems like risks and opportunities might be fairly equally balanced. We’re talking floating wind farms. Right now the biggest in the world is being constructed off the coast of Scotland. Though more efficient in supplying green energy than land-based, and good for fish seeking a refuge, they would be no better than their land-based counterparts at avoiding collateral damage to birds in flight. Plus there’s a chance they could entangle marine mammals.
6 The bionic leaf that makes fuel out of sunlight and water. Forget fitting solar panels to your roof. Just get your bionic leaf and make your own ready-to-use biomass. Watch the video to find out how.
7 Lithium-air batteries. Yet another technology entirely new to me. If produced commercially, these batteries could revolutionise the clean energy industry by enabling electric cars to run on a battery a fifth of the cost and a fifth of the weight of batteries currently on the market. This means you could travel from London to Edinburgh – just over 400 miles – on a single charge. Right now an electric car can only drive between 50 and 80 miles per charge. If you’re interested in the science, click here.
8 Reverse photosynthesis uses the sun’s energy to break down rather than build up plant material. It’s potential? To transform the production of biofuels and plastics and reduce fossil fuel use and carbon emissions.
9 Carbon capture involves dissolving the carbon dioxide in water and injecting it into basalt rock, which is plentiful all around the globe. Once in the rock it undergoes a natural process. The basalts (volcanic rock) react with the gas-in-solution to form carbonate minerals. Hey presto, limestone! In the Iceland Carbfix project it took just two years for the solution to solidify. Compare that with the hundreds or even thousands of years that was predicted. Only the lack of political will is holding this one back. Grrr.
10 Blockchain technology “By allowing digital information to be distributed but not copied, blockchain technology created the backbone of a new type of internet. Originally devised for the digital currency, Bitcoin, the tech community is now finding other potential uses for the technology.”
In the environmental field, these could be: “establishing a currency market for trading carbon credits, improving supply chain traceability (e.g. for sustainable fish) and tracking illegal wildlife trade.”
Which all goes to prove there are few conservation issues for which science and technology cannot find an answer. Futurology is right to see the almost limitless opportunities they offer.
But it’s not human ingenuity that is ever in question. Humankind’s will to implement preventions and solutions most certainly is, both at political and individual level.
The good news is, we have the power in our hands to act at both levels. In politics we can use our vote for the planet. We can also throw your support behind organisations actively engaged in protecting nature and lobbying governments or challenging them in courts of law.
In the USA for example, we have the altogether wonderful Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club amongst others.
Here in the UK, we can support the Wildlife Trusts. We can be sure they will do all in their power to keep our government in line with the National Ecosystem Asessment. We can also join the Ecosystems Knowledge Network. They greatly value individuals’ input.
On a purely individual level Friends of the Earth has a wealth of ideas and tips for living an eco-friendly life which is well worth exploring.
It is so beyond time to stop ravaging the Earth in the pursuit of our own selfish interests. We are currently pursuing a path that is not only irresponsible and disrespectful, but ultimately self-defeating. The real interests of the human race lie not in the rape and pillage of our precious planet and all the life in it, but in due reverence, regaining a sense of wonder, and careful loving stewardship. We can do it.
After all, there is only one Earth.
“I will not dishonor my soul with hatred,
but offer myself humbly as a guardian of nature,
as a healer of misery,
as a messenger of wonder,
as an architect of peace.
I will honor all life,
wherever and in whatever form it may dwell,
on Earth my home,
and in the mansions of the stars.”
– Diane Ackerman
Read about last year’s projections here
¹Imported bees pose risk to UK’s wild and honeybee population – The Guardian
²Building Walls – Purr and Roar. Excellent post on this topic I would heartily recommend. Also Border Fences Aimed at Stopping Immigrants are Killing Wildlife – Take Part
15 risks and opportunities to global conservation – Fauna & Flora International
Hope for the Animals & the Planet?
There is Always Hope for the Animals & the Planet
Ten Fascinating Ways Technology is Saving Animals
How Drones Might Just Save Our Endangered Animals & the Planet