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The future

The way things are going, there will be fewer and fewer bees, less and less honey and a crash in bee-pollinated crop production. But with individual and communal action we can prevent this horrendous scenario.

Give wildflowers a chance

We can encourage wildflowers by sowing them in gardens, parks, on banks and verges, and around crop-bearing fields. Mowing several times in the first year discourages perennial weeds from taking over. A well-chosen mixture of species can prolong flowering by 6–8 weeks and provide more food for bees.

Farmers can sow bee-friendly wildflowers such as wild carrot that flower after a main crop such as wheat and, as an added bonus, reduce the need for weedkillers. They can also cut hay late to give wild flowers more chance to bloom. State-funded set-aside schemes are good since unploughed farmland encourages wildflowers.

Favour bee-friendly ornamental flowers

Gardens, parks and other display areas can be planted with bee-friendly flowers. These include alyssum, asters, borage, candytuft, catmint, coreopsis, daffodils, single dahlias, echium, French marigolds, goldenrod, heather, honeysuckle, larkspur, lavender, lemon balm, nasturtium, rosemary, scabious, sea holly, sedum, sunflowers, sweet william, thyme and tobacco plants.

Bee-friendly flowers are preferable to ones that are showy but offer little nectar (such as begonias, busy lizzies, double dahlias and bedding geraniums). Note that bees favour flowers in clumps and sunny places.

Use insecticides with care, if at all

Instructions should be followed precisely, with applications timed so levels are low during flowering; open flowers should never be sprayed; and spraying should be done only in the evenings or on dull days when fewer bees are about. Good communication between farmers and beekeepers enables hives to be moved before crops are sprayed.

Insecticidal seed dressings called neonicotinoids are of greatest concern. As a seed develops into a plant, they spread through the whole plant and into its nectar and pollen.

Repeated low-level exposure seems to damage bees' navigational skills and memory. They may then lose their way to the hive and die. Studies in France, Scotland and the UK have linked neonicotinoids with bee deaths. Researchers at Royal Holloway College in London, for example, studied nearly 1,000 bees from 40 colonies throughout the UK. Each was tagged with a microchip and some were given a cocktail of pesticides mimicking those commonly encountered on crops. After release, those given pesticides were much less likely to return.

However, one major manufacturer says that neonicotinoids are safe for bees and withdrawing them does not improve bee health.

The dilemma for national regulators is that without pesticides we might lose 30 per cent of our crops. But with them, an ongoing decline in bee numbers could give the same result. A great many people would favour bees rather than pesticides. But big business has a lot of clout.

Honey production is under threat in many countries, but we know some of the ways in which we can help. We just need to act.

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