Bee Populations Are Plummeting, Could Cannabis Help Save Them?
Whether it's healing bees from pesticides, or feeding them from its abundance of pollen, recent scientific studies suggest cannabis could be a major breakthrough in the future of bee conservation.
Article by Tommy Corbyn, founder of National Hemp Service
There's no doubt about it, bee populations around the world are plummeting.
That should terrify us all.
Why are bees so important? Bees play a vital role in maintaining the balance of species in their environment and are essential in regulating our food supply as human beings. Around a third of the food we eat is reliant on pollination carried out by these humble creatures.
25% of all known bee populations 'vanished'
It has recently been reported that as many as 25% of all known bee populations have vanished, despite a massive increase in reporting due to citizen science and the ability to share data more easily. According to The Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), there are around 20,000 species of bee known to man however around 5,000 of these species have not been seen since 1990.
A Nature Communications study found that just 2% of wild bee species contribute 80% of crop pollination visits globally. That means that if this small percentage of bees were to disappear, so would 80% of our agricultural system.
Bee killing pesticides making a comeback
Despite the worrying global collapse in bee populations, the government recently took the decision to reverse an almost outright ban on neonicotinoids, a class of pesticide that is well known to be extremely harmful to bees and has a long been linked to the decline of honeybees, wild bees and other pollinators. The decision was taken due to yellow virus affecting the UK's sugar beet production, and the reversal of the ban will last for twelve months.
Campaigners such as Milan Wiercx van Rhijn, from the charity Bees for Development, are calling on the government not to use harmful short-term solutions to solve issues with production. Instead, they argue, it must shift its focus to having strong, resilient bio-abundance in agriculture, achieved by letting ecosystems develop properly and not encouraging further pollution from damaging pesticides.
"Keep your flowers growing in the spring, as that will have food for pollinators. In every way, we should consider our effect in killing everything by using pesticides."
Neonicotinoids mostly work by disrupting the nervous systems of insects, however, recent research has also suggested that these pesticides can also make bees more susceptible to parasites and viruses. This includes nosemosis, a disease caused by exposure to these pesticides, which is one causative factor for colony collapse.
When bees contract nosemosis it attacks the digestive system, causes weakness and cachexia (muscle loss). Bees cannot digest and absorb nutrients and then entire colonies can simply die.
Remarkably, a recent study in Poland found that hemp extracts could be the key to protecting bees who have been exposed to neonicotinoids.
The Maria Curie-Skłodowska University researchers studied around 5,000 bees, looking at the potential protective effects of hemp extracts against neonicotinoid pesticides.
Inspired by reports that hemp extract protects human nerve cells, the researchers decided to check whether it would be the same in the case of a bee.
The research team found that bees exposed to both a neonicotinoid pesticide and hemp extract not only lived longer than the bees only exposed to the pesticide, but they also lived just as long as the bees that had no contact all with the pesticide.
It's believed that the use of such hemp extracts could present a major breakthrough in the future of bee conservation.
Cannabis to the rescue!
Bees are not blessed with endocannabinoid systems that allow them to experience the effects of cannabis in the same way that mammals do. Instead, when bees feed from cannabis and hemp flowers, the nutrients are naturally passed through to the honey that they produce. Bees act as the extraction process, and the resulting bioavailable honey is naturally infused with active cannabinoids.
Hemp honey anyone?
Despite their inability to benefit from the affects of cannabinoids, researchers at Cornell University recently found that bees were very much attracted to cannabis plants and are now using it as a critical nutritional resource.
The study said; ‘Because of its temporally unique flowering phenology, hemp has the potential to provide a critical nutritional resource to a diverse community of bees during a period of floral scarcity and thereby may help to sustain agroecosystem-wide pollination services for other crops in the landscape.’
The findings came as a surprise as it goes against the assumption that bees are only attracted to colourful flowers with sweet nectar, two things cannabis is not known for.
As a plant that mostly pollinates by wind, cannabis has not needed to develop colours and nectars to attract pollinators like the honeybee, but it is an abundant source of pollen all the same.
Cannabis has become an important resource for bee populations during times of "floral dearth", when nectar-producing flowers are absent, providing them with year-round access to nutrients.
More Hemp = More Bees
Bee's apparent soft spot for cannabis/hemp could be key to tackling the problem of declining bee populations. Unlike many other crops that require pesticides to grow, hemp can be grown virtually pesticide free, leaving bees free to safely extract its pollen without also picking up the harmful chemicals.
With this in mind, the Cornell University study states that ‘growers, land managers, and policy makers should consider its value in supporting bee communities and take its attractiveness to bees into account when developing pest management strategies’.
Whilst it might seem small, we encourage our readers sign this petition calling on the government to continue the ban on the use of neonicotinoids.
The petition states: "I am an ordinary UK resident who is concerned about the state of our declining wildlife. We have the responsibility to protect it and ensure that we can support it and prevent species becoming obsolete. With regards to bees and other pollinators that are affected by these pesticides, their decline will have a knock on effect with fruit and flower growers as well as honey producers many of whom are small businesses who will lose their livelihoods"
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