Column: Birds and the bees

Birds and the bees

In ‘Food For Thought,’ we highlight some aspects of the stuff we put in our body that many of us overlook. Today, it’s how seemingly insignificant changes in in the food chain may soon have a huge effect on what appears on our plate .



It would not be possible to produce the food we eat without the help of a few creatures along the way. Some animals help fertilise our food, some animals pollinate our food, some animals are our food. With the exception of the odd frankenburger, animals are vitally important for sustaining our bodies, whether you’re vegetarian or carnivore.

As is always the case with our massive global food industry, many of these animals are being harmed by the very processes they are a part of.

Take bees, for instance. We have these stripy, fuzzy friends to thank for a lot of the food that ends up on our plate. The UN estimates that, of the 100 food species that are responsible for 90 per cent of the world’s sustenance, 71 of those rely on bees for pollination. Apples, cucumbers, melons, limes; the list of produce is an exhaustive one. With no bees around to pollinate our food, our supermarkets would be very bare indeed.

Not to be a buzzkill, but the prospect of a bee-less future is becoming a very likely one if recent figures are anything to go by. Colony collapse disorder – a phenomenon where bees suddenly disappear from their hives – has  been hitting bee populations around the world hard, with their numbers declining sharply throughout North America and Europe. Around ten million beehives have been killed off by the disease in the past six years.

While no one cause has been pinned as the culprit, there are a myriad of factors which are believed to be responsible for the decline in bee numbers. One set of research points to land degradation and the introduction of invasive species into bee habitats. The destruction and fragmentation of bees’ natural habitats can lead to reductions in flowering plants – a food source for bees, as well as disrupting the areas needed by bees and other pollinators for nesting and roosting. Altering of the landscape by human activity also opens up more invasive species and pests, which can affect bee populations dramatically. Varroa destructor, a parisitic mite which is found on honeybees, feeds on the circulatory fluid of its host and spreads bacteria and viruses, which can kill bees. This parasite was originally discovered in Southeast Asia in 1904 and has since spread worldwide.

Other research points to chemicals used in intensive agricultural and beekeeping practices being the bane of bee populations. Herbicides, pesticides and fungicides, all chemicals used in agriculture and apiculture, can destroy plants used for bee nesting materials, destroy host plants for moth and butterfly larvae (both important pollinators), as well as weakening bees’ immune systems, leaving them more vunerable to diseases and infections. A recent study has linked bees fed with pollen laced with agricultural chemicals to be far more susceptible to a gut parasite responsible for bee deaths.

But it’s not just bees and other pollinators which these agricultural practices are affecting. Birds that make farmlands their homes are also facing staggering losses thanks to modern farming techniques. Across Europe, the past 30 years has seen farmland bird numbers drop by an estimated 297 million, around a 50 per cent decrease in numbers from before that period . While these birds don’t directly affect our food production in the same way that bees do, a drop in numbers like this results in a steep decline in biodiversity and a rise in land degradation, one of the factors behind colony collapse disorder.

The consequences of our insatiable appetites aren’t just affecting the animals inhabiting our farms and orchards either; they reach as far as the bottom of the ocean. Our hunger for fish has resulted in fish stocks declining worldwide, with UK organisation the Marine Conservation Society removing mackerel from its “fish to eat” list earlier this year, raising concerns that it is not as sustainable a catch as once thought.

Tuna, too, is facing a looming crisis as more and more fish are caught faster than they can reproduce. Earlier this year it was discovered that bluefin tuna stocks in the Northern Pacific Ocean had declined by 96 per cent, with 90 per cent of the fish caught being too young to have reproduced. If fishing of the species continues then it will likely become extinct.

With these declining fish stocks comes more desperate attempts at catching what little remains of our ocean bounties. Bottom trawling, the process of dragging nets across the ocean floor to catch deep sea fish and crustaceans, is thought of as being the most destructive and damaging of all fishing practices. The heavy nets used in this process plough through corals and sponges on the seabed, effectively destroying vast stretches of seabed ecosystems. Think of a bulldozer clearing a forest and you’re on the right track.

If you want to minimise the impact that your food consumption has on these animals then there are things you can do. Numerous guides to sustainable fishing have been published, giving you information on what seafood to avoid due to unsustainable practices. If you have a local fishmonger, strike up a conversation to learn where all that fish came from. If bee deaths concern you, try buying organic produce that has had no chemicals used on it. Or maybe apiculture is your calling, and a beehive is just what was missing in your backyard.

The next time you tuck into a meal, just remember you have many critters – more than just those on your plate – to thank for all that food in front of you.



Johnny Crouch is a psychogeographer and writer based in Perth. He finds himself preoccupied with the future.


(Top image from Kaptain Kobold)