This article is part of ‘A Food Education Alphabet’: an ongoing A to Z look at food and words to help spread the word about food issues like sustainability and healthy eating.

Bees are in trouble. And bee trouble means food trouble.

What kind of trouble?

Bee populations have been rapidly dropping throughout the world. In the United States, for example, there has been a fall in the number of managed colonies from an estimated 5 million in the 1940s to around 2.5 million today.

honey-bee-643878_1920Checking on a beehive. Image from Pixabay.

How are bees connected to gastronomy?

Whether you’re enjoying breakfast at home, snacking on street food, or sitting down to a fancy meal in the evening, there’s a high chance that bees played some part in getting you your grub.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, 71 out of 100 of the world’s major food crops rely on bee pollination. Around one third of the food we eat is pollinated by bees, with honey bees being one of the most important pollen-spreading species. Examples of dependent crops include apple, cucumber, almond, pumpkin, buckwheat, and cashew, as well as alfalfa, which is fed to livestock.

Love Braeburns, cashew butter, or steak? Thank the bees!

Honeybee Apple BlossomA honey bee on an apple blossom. Uploaded by Flickr user Orangeaurochs.

Why have bee populations been falling?

The invasion of pests in the 1980s was partly responsible for this, such as the spread of mites like the aptly-named Varroa destructor. Feeding on ‘haemolymph’ – the bee equivalent of blood – and passing on viruses which cause wing deformities, these dot-sized organisms can bring down entire colonies.

From 2006 onwards, beekeepers in Europe and America began reporting widespread cases of ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ (CCD), where adult bees would abandon the queen and her developing young. There are a number of suggested causes: pesky varroa mites and other parasites are one; global warming and loss of habitats are another.

Pesticides are especially harmful to bees, with neonicotinoids being particularly deadly – these attack the nervous systems of the insects.

1024px-Varroa_destructor_on_honeybee_hostA micrograph of Varroa destructor on a honey bee. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

How can bees be helped?

There are ongoing calls to minimize the use of pesticides, or to ban them completely. The use of three neonicotinoids has been restricted by the European Union since 2013, though this was opposed by the United Kingdom.

‘Integrated Pest Management’ (IPM) is an alternative, which calls for non-toxic methods like using other organisms to eat the mites, or employing ‘drone combs’.

Playing a role in maintaining natural habitats is essential. Planting bee-friendly plants is an excellent place to start – think sunflowers, poppies, mint, honeysuckle, and many more!

sunflower-943961_1280Sunflowers are one example of bee-friendly plants. Image from Pixabay.

As the National Geographic showed earlier this year, genetics could provide an answer, either with scientists creating a better-adapted bee, or with a better-adapted bee developing naturally over time.