I always get a buzz when I attend London Skeptics in the Pub in Camden's Monarch pub and Rebecca Nesbit's Save the Honeybee? proved to be no exception. At £3 I didn't even get stung and, don't worry, there's plenty more apian punning to come.
But there are serious points to be made too. Rebecca is an ecologist and writer with a particular interest in the science and ethics of setting conservation priorities. Since completing her PhD on butterflies she's written two books, a novel called A Column of Smoke and Is that Fish in Your Tomato?, which aims to debunk a few myths about GM foods.
Her contention was that conserving the honeybee was not nearly as big a priority as we've been led to believe in recent years. She wasn't proposing we tell them to buzz off so much as suggesting that they're actually doing very well as it is. We've all seen, or read, the stories about how the bee is under threat and if the bee goes we may not be far behind it. But how true are those stories?
It's certainly true that, ecologically, ours and previous generations have presided over something of a disaster. It's looking like our generation will be, almost uniquely, leaving the Earth with less species on it than were here when we arrived. But it's highly unlikely the honeybee, apis mellifera, will be one of those to take the final curtain.
Rebecca was no enemy of the bee, she's even taught them to detect explosives though I'm not sure how, and started off with a little background on the insect we all hate to love and love to hate. Honeybees are just 1 of 20,000 species of bee in the world (in the UK alone there are 24 species of bumblebee and 225 'solitary' bee species) and, as it stands, it's estimated there are 80,000,000 honeybee hives around the globe.
That's the most ever in history - and the figure's rising. Sure, numbers are down in some places (Germany & USA for example) but they're more than compensated for by the rise in hives in countries like China and Argentina. So, globally, honeybees, unlike many other creatures, are in no imminent threat of demise.
The threats they do face are pesticide, habitat loss, climate change, and little critters called varroa mites, parasites that transmit diseases like the nasty sounding deformed wing virus (didn't they play at the Dublin Castle once?) to larval or pupating bees. If any of these was exacerbated to an extinction level event then it'd be pretty serious.
Bees are very important pollinators but they're not the only animals that pollinate. Ants, birds, bats, wasps, moths, and even giraffes all do their bit in the pollination process. Though, without bees, it seems we'd soon be without both melons and Brazil nuts. To be honest, I could probably get by.
But, having established that extinction is not something we need to worry about, Rebecca's talk (at all junctures she was keen to express she wasn't giving answers, but asking questions) expanded into wider questions about bee conservation and conservation in general.
Why do we conserve? Is it all about us? Do we save animals that help us (like the honeybee) and let ones that don't perish? Do we save animals because they're cute? The fact that pandas have become the poster boys and girls for conservation (while not pulling their own weight by simply getting on with shagging each other, one can only assume bamboo is an abysmal aphrodisiac) suggest there's some truth in this.
Are honeybees even wild animals? It's debatable. Most of them live in 'farms'. They may not be fenced in like cows, pigs, or sheep but they're pretty dependent on their relationships with beekeepers, relationships that are simultaneously interdependent and dysfunctional! I've never heard of a campaign to save the cow or pig from extinction. Farmers just get them to breed more and, unlike the pandas, it seems they're mostly willing. Stuck in the same field your entire life you'd be grateful of the chance for a bit of bovine bonking or some ovine organ grinding, especially if you were blissfully ignorant of the fact that you, your partner, and your offspring were all gonna be shoved in the back of a lorry, driven to an abattoir to have a bolt put through your head, before being ground down to be sold as the filling of a Ginster's pasty in a motorway service station. That'd really ruin the moment.
Taking my ranting vegetarian hat off for a while (I'd not worn it for a while and had forgotten just how comfy it was) what can we do (and not do) if we're concerned about conservation? For a start don't sign online petitions calling agrichemical companies evil. They may or may not be but that's just blaming others, and governments shouldn't be listening to surveys to decide policy but using critical thinking, it's not like they've dismissed the concept of expertise, is it!?
Don't introduce more beehives when we've already got as many as the 1982 regional final of the Mari Wilson lookalike competition. But do stop throwing so much food away, agriculture is bad for wildlife. Agriculture is necessary to grow our food but if we're just going to throw it away then we've destroyed valuable habitat for no reason.
It takes way more space to rear animals than it does to grow crops (plus those animals are reliant on crops being grown to feed them therefore doubling the problem) so reduce consumption of animal products or stop eating animals entirely. I can't be too smug about this as I've not been able to, and nor will I ever be likely to, make the jump from vegetarianism to veganism but there are so many compelling cases for it now, and tasty alternatives, that it's very very difficult, nigh on impossible, to make a moral case for not doing it. Veggies care about people too, most of us.
Lastly, how about trying to save animals that genuinely are threatened. Rebecca suggested her personal favourite, the water vole tic. These little blighters aren't ever going to shift as many posters as pandas or seals (they won't need to chop down any trees for them - which is surely another bonus) but they play a crucial, if infinitely complicated and decidedly unglamorous) role in the ecosystem and without them other more well known, cuter, species could be threatened. Perhaps we need to start at the bottom of the food chain. As with politics the trickle down policy hasn't been working so let's help out the most needy at first.
I don't have the first bit of scientific knowledge about bees, water vole tics, or, indeed, agriculture so in this blog I've just been relaying Rebecca's, possibly contentious, opinions. She made a clear, learned, case and I came away thinking the subject was a lot more interesting than I went in. As I walked out into the streets of Camden they were swarming (penultimate one, honest), but alas not with beekeepers as, sadly, only one attended the event.
Buzz buzz a diddle it.