COMMENT: Media stories around bee-apocalypse and imminent collapse of the human food system require a dose of reality.
There are more managed bee hives in New Zealand, and more bees, than there have ever been in the past.
There are more managed bee hives globally, and more bees, than there have ever been in the past.
And although there are many statements around the fact that every third mouthful has a contribution by bees, the staples of life (corn, wheat, rice, potatoes and cassava) do not rely on bees for pollination.
The first three are seeds from wind-pollinated plants and the second two are starch-filled tubers.
Bees certainly contribute to all the strawberries, apples, apricots and almonds in our diets that taste so delicious. But not sugar or bananas or grapes. Or chocolate.
The bee-apocalypse stories started in the mid-2000s when bee deaths began occurring in large numbers. Colony Collapse Disorder (which indicates a collection of possible causes rather than a single identified cause) was rife in the northern hemisphere. Whole hives died over winter and predictions were dire.
Overall, however, honey bee numbers have increased over the past few decades.
Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, calculates that the total number of managed honeybees worldwide has risen 45 per cent over the past 50 years.
"Honeybees are not going to go extinct - we have more honeybee hives than we've ever had," he says. (The Xerces Society is a non-profit environmental group dedicated to the conservation of invertebrates considered to be essential to biodiversity.)
It is important to note that during any season many bees die. Their life span is only 4-6 weeks and it has been estimated that about 1000 bees die a day from a hive … but 1600 hatch.
"Rusty" from the Honeybeesuite website says, "The daily loss of bees is much greater that we realise. The fact that we don't see the dead, coupled with enormous amounts of brood rearing, lulls us into thinking that bees don't die. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth."
Research on bee numbers in hives has been published since at least the 19th century. In 1898 a paper on "The daily and seasonal activity of a hive of bees" concluded that numbers were dependent on the season and food availability. Little has changed.
Colony Collapse Disorder has been linked to monoculture feeding (almond orchards, for instance), lack of food over winter, and soggy boggy winter conditions exacerbated by climate variability. Varroa and the viruses the mite carries may well have been the final straw for some hives with insufficient energy.
There have also been ongoing suggestions that chemicals, particularly the insecticide group termed "neonicotinoids" are responsible.
The EU has banned the use of these insecticides despite the fact that some countries have used them for more than 20 years with no apparent effect on bees. Australia, for instance, has recorded no issues; Australia does not have Varroa mite.
New Zealand does have Varroa, but it also has a burgeoning number of hives and beekeepers. Both have more than doubled since 2004, and the Ministry for Primary Industries reports that in June 2017 New Zealand had 805,902 colonies (an increase of almost 18 per cent in a year, which was on top of a 20 per cent increase the previous year).
This increase has not stopped suggestions that we should follow the European example and ban neonicotinoid use.
Strict regulations, set by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), surround the use of neonicotinoids. The EPA evaluates all available research, assesses it for relevance to New Zealand conditions, and establishes the guidelines or regulations.
What is apparent in the neonicotinoid debate is that the European Food Safety Authority said that "a low risk could not be confirmed".
The trials underpinning this statement had been given a bee death threshold of only 7 per cent, when 21 per cent is the normal fluctuation, so the trials could not prove no risk.
What hasn't yet been pointed out is that without neonicotinoids, canola mite cannot be controlled, so farmers aren't planting it. Without canola oil, substitutes will be required by consumers – and an easy substitute is palm oil.
Banning neonicotinoids causes deforestation? Not in New Zealand … but New Zealand has no problem with hive numbers either.
• Jacqueline Rowarth has a PhD in soil science and has been analysing agri-environment interaction for several decades.