Rabobank report on Honeybee decline

A new Rabobank report titled ‘The plight of the honey bee’ examines the importance of honey bee colonies to global agriculture. The steep decline in bee colonies since 2006 threatens production of crops from apples and almonds to cocoa, melons and soybeans. “Crop pollination by animals, particularly bees, currently supports around approximately a third of global food production” says Ruben Verwijs of Rabobank’s Food & Agribusiness Research and Advisory.“As demand for these crops grows, we have to find sustainable methods to maintain crop pollination by honey bees.”

Major losses for U.S. and European beekeepers
Since 2006 American beekeepers have been experiencing inexplicable losses of bees and considerable financial damage due to a phenomenon which has been labelled ‘colony collapse disorder’. Verwijs: “A loss rate of 10 per cent of a bee colony is considered normal. In the U.S. the rate of bee colonies not surviving the winter has been between 30 and 35 per cent, with the worst-hit beekeepers losing up to 90 per cent of their hives.” In the same period many European beekeepers have experienced losses of above 20 per cent. Inexplicable losses are also being witnessed in Asia, South America, and the Middle East.

Honey bee pollination crucial for agribusiness
Animal pollinators play a crucial role in flowering plant reproduction and in the production of most fruits and vegetables. The act of pollination occurs when pollen grains are moved between two flowers of the same species by wind or animals. Ruben Verwijs: “Around 90 agricultural crops - representing one third of global food production volume - are dependent to some extent on animal pollination. Foods and beverages produced with the help of animal pollinators include almonds, apples, blueberries, coffee, melons and soybeans.”

The domesticated honey bee is by far the most significant of the several species of animal pollinators, accounting for between 80 to 90 percent of total animal pollination. Honey bees are also the most economically valuable pollinators of agricultural crops. U.S. government research estimates the monetary value of honey bees as commercial pollinators at between USD 15-20 billion annually.

Rising demand for pollinated crops
The sharp increase in honey bee colony losses has attracted attention from politicians, academics and the media, with some parties even claiming that mankind could vanish along with the honey bee. But Ruben Verwijs considers this highly unlikely. “Some of the major staple crops such as rice, wheat and corn do not require animal pollination. Besides, high losses to bee colonies are not entirely new. Early in the 20th century a disease wiped out nearly all the bees from the British Isles.”

But there is certainly cause for concern. Further declines in honey bee numbers around the world could cause a pollination shortage, which could impact the yields of crops like apples, pears and cocoa. Which could in turn affect the price of pollination-dependent crops, at a time when demand is rising. Verwijs explains: “In emerging economies like China and Brazil, consumers can afford to move away from staple crops like corn, wheat and rice, which do not rely on animal pollination, to include more fresh fruits and vegetables in their diet. If honey bee colonies continue to decline as demand for these crops rises, we could face a global issue with a considerable economic impact. “

Joint action for sustainable solutions
In conclusion the Rabobank report calls for cooperation between the academic world, government bodies, beekeepers and companies directly dependent on animal pollination such as farmers and food processors. The Rabobank analyst gives a number of pointers to solutions, including more coordinated research and increasing biodiversity in agricultural production. Although there is still no clear explanation of the causes of the decline in honey bee colonies, for Verwijs one thing is perfectly clear: pollination can no longer be taken for granted as a production factor in the agri food chain.


Full report The Plight of the Honey Bee

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