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Honeybees for hire

The reason why saving bees is a more popular cause than saving the crested newt is their role as crop pollinators. The calls for a ban on some pesticides are motivated less by a desire to protect bees as a species than by recognition of the service they provide in fertilising plants by transferring pollen from one flower to the next; the key concern is not the risk that wild plants may die out, but that food crops may do so. Not all of our plant diet depends on pollinating insects, but their disappearance would considerably reduce our quality of life. American researcher Keith Delaplane writes that if ‘we value a diverse food supply with minimised trauma to the environments where it is produced, we will place a high value indeed on honeybees and other pollinators’ (1).

Pollination has become the best known ‘ecosystem service’, a new conceptual tool that international institutions use to reconcile conservation with development, on the premise that they are compatible. One expert explains that ‘ecosystems are seen as providers of essential goods and services for human wellbeing; linking ecosystem functions with human [quality of life] is therefore thought to justify nature conservation and environmentally sensitive management’ (2).

But if the concept of ecosystem services was really as strong and effective as claimed, protection of pollinating species should have become mandatory, at least for crops entirely dependent on them. This is far from being the case, as shown by the example of California, which produces 80% of the world’s almonds. Californian growers would rather rent bees, even if weakened by parasites and pesticides, than protect biodiversity. Every spring, around 60% of the bee population of the US is transported to the West Coast in heavy goods vehicles, to provide pollination services for a fee. Other insects are being commercialised in this flourishing market, and could take over from bees if their high mortality in temperate regions worsens. Small yet dynamic colonies of bumblebees, shipped in parcels, are ideal for pollinating greenhouse tomato plants. For the moment, not even rising bee mortality is enough to halt the domestication and manipulation of our natural environment.

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