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Forests as bee sanctuaries

Bees are the columns that hold up the structure of our agriculture, therefore of our economy and nutrition. They are now in danger of extinction, and the preservation of forests is a major part of the solution to this problem.

“That which is not good for the bee-hive, cannot be good for the bees.”

-Marcus Aurelius

Imagine going to the supermarket, in the vegetables’ isle, and you look at it, in shock: you see some potatoes and pineapples, but tomatoes, onions, lemons, oranges, almonds, watermelons, apples, carrots, pears, eggplants, artichokes, cabbages, mangos, avocados, kiwis, zucchini, strawberries are nowhere to be found. This is only a part of the whole list, and I could go on for pages. This is what we would face if bees were to disappear, which is exactly what is happening right now in the world. The resilience of the ecosystems

Before explaining why bees are so crucial for our health and wealth, a foreword is much needed, about the concept of resilience of an ecosystem. An ecosystem is a self-sufficient circumscribed area made of living matter (plants, animals, fungi etc.) and non-living matter. Millions of years of evolution and adaptation have created circular equilibria in each different geography, from the broadest plains of the Russian tundra, to the tightest niches in the valley forests of the Andes, life would thrive through consistent and regular cycles. However, these ever-flowing exuberant sets do possess a certain resilience, in other words they are not chains whose strength is determined by their weakest link, instead, a remarkable flexibility permits to the various parts in the system to reconfigure in case one or more of them would go through change or perish. This cycle of change and adaptation has been going on since the dawn of life on Earth: countless species have faced extinction due to natural causes, and others have adapted to play their role in the whole picture with the highest efficiency, as in an admirable clockwork. Yet, as we know, nowadays human activity and anthropogenic climate change are damaging and obliterating significant portions of ecosystems. More precisely, we have pushed the rate of animal and plant extinction at a rhythm from 100 to 1,000 times faster than usual, artificially producing the Sixth Great Mass Extinction in the history of our planet. Bees are one of these endangered species. Why we need bees

Talking about bees, we talk about the economy, biodiversity in ecosystems, human nutrition, sustenance and health. Let us be clear: the importance of the role of bees cannot be overstated. For those who are not acquainted with the topic, “honey” is not the main issue. Three out of four crops across the globe producing fruits or seeds for human consumption depend on pollinators: the vast majority of these animals are wild, including over 20,000 species of bees. Pollinators are essential in an ecosystem, as they strongly influence its conservation and stability -therefore its resilience-, the ecological balance, the genetic variation in the plant community and the specialization and evolution of fellow animals and plants. Researchers found that roughly 80 percent of all flowering plants are entomophilous (their pollination to reproduce depends on insects). Concerning agriculture, improving pollinator density and diversity boosts crop yields – pollinators affect 35 percent of global agricultural land, supporting the production of 87 of the leading food crops worldwide. Also, pollinator-dependent food products contribute to healthier diets and nutrition. Most plants need more than a visit from bees to have the “eggs” of all its flowers fertilized. Some strawberry varieties can need up to 20 pollen grains -consequently they must be visited by bees several times-, while certain apples only need 4 or 5 visits to complete the fertilization. Every species of bee has a unique way to pollinate flowers, and each flowery plant species requires specific conditions and a certain number of visits from bees to be able to reproduce. Lo and behold the richness of this diversity: a honeybee can visit between 50 up to 1000 flowers in one trip, taking from 30 minutes to four hours. In Europe, a bee takes between seven to fourteen trips a day, and a colony with 20,000 forager bees can pollinate 250 million flowers. This is just a minuscule “brush stroke” of the whole picture, but helps to have a glimpse of the finely chiseled arabesque that is an ecosystem.

The shelter

In the safeguard of pollinators in general and bees in particular, forests play a key role. The honeybees and stingless bees have originally developed in forest biotopes, which are areas with uniform environmental conditions providing a living place for specific plants and animals. Wild honey bees naturally prefer high nesting positions in trees rather than open landscapes, yet, bee nests can be found everywhere in a tree. Therefore, when beekeeping is present in a forest, the beekeepers will also protect the forests and especially the tall trees, preferred by the bees. When enough of them are present in a forest and its surroundings, they provide a better pollination, thus leading to an improved regeneration of trees, conservation of the forest’s biodiversity and better harvests. A green wreath

As I like to call it, the forestry aspects of the climate change issue form a complex interwoven green wreath. Let us have a tiny look at how this marvellous complexity manifests. Let’s grab our best magnifying glass and tread softly on the tropical undergrowth, in Brazil, Amazon forest. Every year Brazil exports more than 50 million kilos of Brazilian nuts -try to imagine the volume of business around this-. As strange as it may sound, only the small and shiny Euglossa bee can pollinate this tree. Furthermore, the existence of this bee is directly connected with a species of wild orchid that is only grown in the rainforest. Ergo, these Brazilian nut trees, so productive and lucrouful for the economy, cannot by any means be grown in plantations. Again, this is only one example, but I am convinced that it truly helps to show how many products whose use and purchase we take for granted, are actually made possible only when nature is left undisturbed, neither domesticated nor bent to our purposes.

As previously said, bees are under threat now, but sustainable agriculture and forest preservation can reduce the risk of extinction by helping to diversify the agricultural landscape and the natural habitat of pollinators. Without forests we would end up almost without bees, and without bees, we would face a world-scale food crisis5. We must act now: the size of this issue is well known, as already in 1901 the Nobel Prize for literature M. Maeterlinck stated in his masterpiece about bees with great farsightedness: “If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live”.

The solution is PROTECT AND RESTORE!

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