4 Nov 2014

Four reasons why bees are better than footballers

Environment Secretary Liz Truss says Britain’s bees need to be treated like Premier League players – but perhaps we should value them more than football’s best paid. Here’s why.

Praise bee

Above: Praise bee – should we put our pollinating friends on a pedestal over the Premier League’s stars?

Bees and other pollinating insects are a vital component of Britain’s agricultural economy and on Tuesday Environment Secretary Liz Truss launched the government’s National Pollinator Strategy in a bid to reverse the decline of bee populations. She even said we should treat bees like Premier League footballers (though presumably fewer ice baths).

But here at Channel 4 News we think bees deserve more respect than footballers…

Honey money

Premier League footballers, due to their vast salaries, contribute a lot to the UK economy through income tax and national insurance contributions – more than £700m in 2010, and some estimates put the figure at close to £1bn today.

The humble honeybee’s contribution may look meagre by comparison. Approximately half of the pollinators’ (including other insects such as butterflies and hoverflies) contribution to the economy, £603m, is down to honeybees. Add to that a £30m honey industry and the economic value is less than half that of Premier League footballers.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs points out that there is an additional environmental and societal value – such as the pollination of wild flowers.

But this is the crux. Bees do not get paid. Footballers do.

You don’t see bees driving through the streets of Manchester in souped-up Range Rovers, or knocking back Cristal champagne. The humble bumble doesn’t ask for anything – it just gets on with the job of helping British farming industries.

Some footballers, however, are not happy with contributing so much to the UK economy – with several high-profile names linked to tax avoidance schemes in order to keep hundreds of thousands of pounds for themselves.

Good bee-haviour

How would a child react to seeing a bee? Most likely it would back away.

How would the same child react to seeing Uruguayan football star Luis Suarez? Potentially run forward, in an autograph-hunting frenzy.

This is the wrong way round.

Research by Harvard’s School of Public Health suggests the chances of getting stung by a bee are approximately one in 6 million.

A honeybee and Luis Suarez

Luis Suarez potentially poses a greater threat. According to the New Statesmen the chance of being bitten by Luis Suarez (OK, if you happen to be playing against him) is around one in 2,000 (though he has promised never to bite anyone again).

Bees normally only sting when they feel their hive is threatened, or they are put in danger (i.e. you sit on one). Many people have speculated why Luis Suarez bites his opponents – but it certainly isn’t in order to protect his “hive”.

There were 53 red cards in the Premier League’s last season. There is no data to suggest a bee has ever needed to be cautioned or indeed excluded from pollination because of violent behaviour.

Caught by the buzz

Premier League and former Premier League footballers have been jailed for a range of crimes including assault, sexual assault, rape, possession of drugs, and operating a brothel.

No bee has ever been convicted in UK law for a criminal offence. We suspect this may be true across all global jurisdictions.

Bees’ needs

The Premier League started life as the First Division in 188 with 12 teams, and this has risen to 20 teams today, covering more than 650 players.

Bees are not in such rude health. Though it can be difficult to collate specific data on populations, a wide variety of threats are damaging bee populations – from the Varroa mite to neonicotinoid pesticides.

Since the 1950s, two of the UK’s 25 bumblebee species are now considered extinct and eight have suffered massive population declines.

Honeybee numbers are more governed by socio-economic factors – including the number of beekeepers. Between 1985 and 2005 there was a 54 per cent fall in the number of honeybee hives, Defra says.

Consensus is that Varroa mites and other diseases have wiped out wild honeybee populations in England and most other European countries.

What the government is doing (and not doing)

Working with landowners to encourage them to support wild bee populations –

  • Investing in scientific research into the condition of bees
  • Providing information to the public on helping bees in the local area
  • Under a £900m Countryside Stewardship scheme, payments will be made to farmers to maintain hedgerows and wildlife-friendly areas that could host nesting sites for pollinators
  • Beehives will be installed on the Department for Environment’s London headquarters

However, conservation groups have raised concerns that there has been no action on neonicotinoid pesticides – despite an EU ban on three types of the pesticide.

Paul de Zylva, senior nature campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “It will be odd if we all step up to act while the pesticides and farming industry is allowed to carry on in the face of overwhelming evidence that use of so many bee-harming chemicals is a major cause of their decline.”