Disappearing bees may leave us with a bland diet

Breakfast may be toast if we don’t take action to save the bees, according to York biology Professor and bee expert Laurence Packer.

“Consider breakfast. Eggs, maybe a slice of watermelon, toast with butter and jam, and a cup of coffee with a dash of milk….The only item in the list that bees do not play a direct role in producing is your toast, since wheat is pollinated by wind,” Packer writes in his new book, Keeping the Bees: Why All Bees Are at Risk and What We Can Do to Save Them.

Whether pollinating seeds eaten by chickens that lay eggs, or pollinating alfalfa for cows that produce milk, bees are vital to our food supply, Packer says. Many fruits and vegetables would all but disappear in a world with few bees and coffee would be very expensive. Although we could get sufficient calories from crops that do not rely on bees, we would be much less healthy, he says.

Keeping the Bees, published by HarperCollins,chronicles Packer’s travels to every continent except Antarctica − where there are no bees − tracking many of the 19,500 described species of wild bees. These beautiful insects are heroines of pollination, Packer says, and cannot be replaced by honey bees, which do not pollinate some plants well and are threatened by Colony Collapse Disorder. Wild bees are also particularly sensitive indicators of the state of the environment, he says.

A wild bee entomologist (melittologist) who has spent decades watching bees build nests, forage for food, choose mates and attack one another, Packer debunks some common myths in Keeping the Bees. He points out, for example, that not all bees are busy; their aptitude for hard work ranges widely, from the Arctic bumble bee that works constantly until it dies of exhaustion, to the cuckoo bee, that collects no food and makes no nests.

Right: Laurence Packer

In a chapter titled “Sexually Transmitted Child-eating Female Impersonators on a California Sand Dune”, Packer describes the natural enemies of wild bees, including the Francisco oil beetle, which tricks young, randy bees into carrying beetle larvae onto their next sexual adventures. Once the beetle larvae get into the female bee’s nest, they eat the pollen and nectar she is storing for her offspring. Then they eat the offspring.

While this is a gruesome scenario, it is humans that have become the number one enemy of many of the world’s bees, says Packer. Clearing forest for agriculture improved habitats for many bees, but since then we have had increasingly negative impacts, he says. For example, bumble bee colonies that were shipped to greenhouses were later found to be diseased and spread disease to wild bees nearby.

More recently, pesticide use has been shown to affect the foraging behaviour of bees, so they bring less food home, and produce fewer offspring. Global warming, the introduction of invasive species, and habitat fragmentation have also led to worldwide concern about bees.

The solution begins in our own backyards, Packer suggests – in his case, in a small downtown Toronto backyard with a wooden grape arbour where large carpenter bees nest, raspberry canes for small carpenter bees and masked bees, and soft brickwork for orchard bees − all in all, homes for about 30 species of the 100 species found in Toronto.

In addition to providing nest sites, Packer urges readers to grow native species plants, refrain from pesticide use, buy organic food when possible, encourage bee-friendly practices by government, and walk on the grass. If enough of us do it, he says, the bees will nest in the sloped sides of that footpath.

Members of the Packer Lab at York University conduct a wide variety of research on bee biology. The author’s proceeds from sales of Keeping the Bees will be dedicated to bee conservation research by graduate students.