They may be the smallest of insects and mammals and, yet, pollinators – including bees, birds, butterflies and beetles – carry one of nature’s heaviest loads.

Indeed, without pollinators, the world would be a very hungry place because, by transferring genetic material that is critical to the reproductive system of flowering plants, they help sustain the production of natural resources. 

Some studies even suggest pollinators are responsible for providing us with one out of every three bites of food.

World Bee Day is celebrated every year on May 20, today, which coincides with the birthday of Anton Janša, who, in the 18th century, pioneered modern beekeeping techniques in his native Slovenia and praised the bees for their ability to work so hard while needing so little attention.

Despite their critical importance, bees and other pollinators, such as butterflies, bats and hummingbirds, are increasingly being threatened by human activities.

A world without pollinators would equal a world without food diversity – no coffee, chocolate, cucumbers, blueberries and much more. Pollinators not only help ensure the abundance of fruits, nuts and seeds but also their variety and quality. 

Beyond food, pollinators also contribute directly to medicine, biofuels, fibres, like cotton and linen, and construction material.

Of course, the ‘sweetest’ contribution of bees is honey. Juan Debono, a full-time lecturer at the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology’s centre for agriculture, aquatics and animal sciences, noted how the local bee adapted to the Maltese climate and, despite a hot summer with practically no flowers, it can still produce a fair amount of honey, which has various health benefits.

“Local honey contains traces of pollen coming from local plants. This can be beneficial to those suffering from allergies caused by pollen. When honey is consumed, some pollen is also ingested and the body may get accustomed to the pollen grains and the allergy may be eased. 

The health benefits of honey in general are well known and local honey possesses all such benefits,” he stresses.

Colony collapse disorder, a mysterious scourge blamed partly on pesticides, killed many bees in recent years.

The obvious contributor to habitat loss is the reclamation of rural land to make way for development

Air pollution may be interfering with the bees’ ability to find flowering plants and, thus, food, with scents that could travel over 800 metres in the 1800s now being cut to less than 200 metres from a plant.

Electromagnetic fields from sources such as power lines might also be changing the behaviour of bees, which are sensitive as they have small abdominal crystals containing lead.

Read: Bees in Malta are under threat

According to Stephen Mifsud, senior medical laboratory technologist and botanist at EcoGozo regional development directorate, the dwindling bee population is affected by three major concerns: habitat loss, aggressive pesticide application and the introduction of alien species competing with local bees.

“As a botanist, I can mainly comment on habitat loss, which refers to the eradication of rural areas in favour of developed ones but, in this context, it implies all activities that decrease flowers from our islands,” Mr Mifsud comments, adding that the survival of bee colonies depends on working bees collecting nectar and pollen from wild flowers and transporting them to their hive.

All factors that reduce the amount of wild flowers are hence negatively affecting the bee community. It must be said that bees visit all bee-pollinated flowers irrespective of whether they are native, common, attractive, fragrant or are located in a pristine garigue with thyme, germander or trefoils, in fallow or abandoned fields with vetches, poppies, thistles and sulla (silla) or if found in a disturbed area populated by mallows, snapdragons, bindweed, cape sorrel, or even in public or private gardens.

However, Mr Mifsud adds that not all flowering plants are pollinated by bees. 

Some are wind pollinated while others are pollinated only by butterflies, normally those that are tubular in shape, such as kidney vetches, or have a long spur at their back, including lantanas and butterfly bushes.

The obvious contributor to habitat loss is the reclamation of rural land to make way for development and building. However, the truth is there are other activities many of us are not aware of, such as the removal of wild plants from the side of rural roads, the plantation of eucalyptus trees that prevent wild flowers from growing under them, developing a monoculture instead of having an array of crops, uncontrolled application of herbicides in agribusiness to eradicate wild plants, cleaning valleys and leaving no space for wild vegetation to grow and leaving private gardens uncared for and without flowering plants.

“While one can easily point a finger at the central authorities for habitat loss, it is a broader issue and everyone can help increase flowers in the environment,” Mr Mifsud remarks.

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