The world is currently witnessing a huge loss of species, some have dubbed it the ‘sixth mass extinction’ due to the speed at which we are seeing fauna and flora, that had previously survived for millennia, being assigned to the history books.
Scientists don’t know how many different species there are on earth, some estimate that we may have discovered as few as 10%. Due to this, it’s hard to estimate how many are lost each year, but it could be in the tens of thousands.
Humans are thought to be the main driver of species loss. Activities such as intensive farming, the widespread use of pesticides and other chemicals for growing crops and for industry, climate change, the destruction of natural habitats for house building and the development of modern infrastructure and hunting for food and medicine, are all contributing to the rapid loss of wildlife.
One of the groups of plants and animals that have been most affected by population decline is insects. It is estimated that there are 10 million separate species of insects, although to date scientists have documented 1 million of them.
Destruction of the flying insect population
A report released by The National History Museum suggests that the UK’s flying insect population has plummeted by 60% in only 20 years. Plants, including around 70% of the plants that humans and livestock eat, need insects to pollinate them. This means, that the declining flying insect population could have potentially severe consequences for the global food supply.
Speaking to NHM about an important study investigating insect population numbers in the UK by charity Buglife, Paul Hadaway, the director of conservation at Kent Wildlife Trust, said, “The results from the Bugs Matter study should shock and concern us all. We are seeing declines in insects, which reflect the enormous threats and loss of wildlife more broadly across the country.
These declines are happening at an alarming rate and without concerted action to address them, we face a stark future. Insects and pollinators are fundamental to the health of our environment and rural economies.
We need action for all our wildlife now by creating more and bigger areas of habitats, providing corridors through the landscape for wildlife and allowing nature space to recover.”
Apis mellifera, the honey bee
Apis is the Latin name for the flying insect species we know in English as the bee. Bees are an insect whose habitat is spread throughout the world, the most densely populated areas being North America, South Africa, the warmer parts of Europe, and Australia.
Bees are one of the best and most prevalent pollinators, through a process known as entomophily. Leaving their hive to collect food for the colony, bees land on certain plants to take away their pollen and nectar. While flying back to the hive to share the food they collected, some of the pollen falls and lands on the female reproductive organs of plants, which in turn leads to fertilisation, and then to new plant growth.
Unfortunately, bees have been heavily impacted by population decline: a report commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) found that as many as 17 species have already disappeared from the UK alone.
In the report, Tanya Steele, chief executive of WWF, and Mark Shardlow, chief executive of Buglife said, “Make no mistake – bees are essential. They maintain the reproductive success of wildflowers and the yields of crops we eat. Sadly, as this report shows, many pollinator species are struggling.
Make no mistake – bees are essential. They maintain the reproductive success of wildflowers and the yields of crops we eat. Sadly, as this report shows, many pollinator species are struggling.
The main pressures faced by bees in the east of England mirror those faced by nature the world over – devastating changes to our climate, the loss and fragmentation of vital habitats, and threats from pesticides and pollution. Collapses in populations of wild pollinators have big economic impacts.
We are already seeing the effects here – for instance, if wild pollinator populations were healthier there would be more apples on British trees (£5.7 million worth of Gala apples alone). This report does far more than reveal that bees are under siege. Crucially, it shows we can begin to turn the problem around.
But there is no easy answer – restoring our bee populations to good health will require many changes, such as reversing the fragmentation of wildflower meadows, reducing the effects of chemical pollution, protecting bees from imported diseases, and taking targeted action to bring endangered species back from the brink.”
Tackling bee population decline
There are many changes we as humans could make that would help slow the rapid rate of species loss we are currently seeing; using fewer pesticides and chemicals, farming in a way that was more in tune with nature, and halting the destruction of natural habitats. Some of our actions that negatively impact bee population numbers, like the widespread use of chemicals and pesticides, and environmental change, do so because of how they affect the bees physically.
Scientists have found the natural defences bees have against disease and infection from parasites and pathogens are seriously affected by the external environmental pressures placed on them. This results in weaker bees that are less productive and live for shorter periods of time, ultimately leading to massive population decline. The implications of this to society, and to the world we live in, are serious and widespread.
While societal changes have the greatest impact, they are slow to implement. In an attempt to arrest population decline, scientists have been looking at ways to boost the immune systems of bees. Much like the vitamins you may take at home, bees are being given natural ‘biostimulant’ supplements that have been extracted from plants.
Due to the risk of chemical residue in bee products such as honey, supplements given to bees must be non-toxic and already certified as safe for use in human food. Extracts such as piperine (from pepper), curcumin (turmeric), caffeine (present in coffee beans, cocoa beans and tea) and others have all been investigated for their potential to support bee population health.
Although favourable results were recorded using supplements for specific diseases or illnesses, scientists are yet to find a substance that is suitable for all needs while adhering to strict food safety guidelines.
Could cannabis help save the bees?
Cannabis has been studied to record-breaking levels in recent years, with more and more research being published every month. Mountains of evidence have been produced that claim cannabis and its cannabinoid, terpene and flavonoid components are a cure for a plethora of different ailments; from severe childhood epilepsy to helping people to have more fun in the bedroom.
The way cannabis works in the body is not yet fully understood, but scientists do know that cannabinoids such as CBD and THC attach themselves to cannabinoid receptors in various parts of the body. One of the human body’s most important systems is the endocannabinoid system (ECS), it is this system that is thought to control the reception of cannabinoids and other components found in cannabis.
Many animals also have an ECS. Numerous studies have looked at the role cannabis can play in improving the health of animals such as dogs and horses. While insects don’t have the same sort of endocannabinoid system as humans and other animals, they do still receive and process cannabinoids, which are thought to be beneficial to them.
Previous studies investigating the use of cannabis and its different cannabinoids as a way to boost bees’ immune systems have been fruitful. Using bees both caged in a laboratory, and in natural colony conditions, scientists have produced evidence that suggests CBD could be more helpful than others in supporting the immune system, through stimulation of the antioxidant system.
Researchers have also discovered that bees lived for longer and were more productive after being administered a hemp extract containing CBD via an oil.
CBD supporting bee health – the latest study
Conducted at the Department of Invertebrate Ecophysiology and Experimental Biology, University of Life Sciences in Lublin, Poland in 2023, the study involved researchers giving 200 bees a 30% CBD oil and then testing their levels of ions such as calcium, magnesium and phosphorus to determine the effect it had on their antioxidant system.
The bees were marked, split into three groups and added back into their respective colonies. Different methods of administration were used in each group, with two colonies of bees being used for each. The first group were given CBD mixed with sugar syrup, the second group were given CBD on a textile strip, and the third group, the ‘control’ group given only pure sugar syrup.
Each week the marked bees had samples taken of hemolymph, a fluid found in most insects and invertebrates similar to blood. Sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium levels were analysed as indicators for antioxidant enzyme activity. The researchers found that the bees who were in the CBD groups had higher levels of antioxidant enzyme activity than those who were not given CBD. The most effective vehicle for delivering CBD to the bees was found to be sugar syrup.
Through the analysis of evidence collected, scientists found that supplementing bees living in both colony and caged conditions with CBD was beneficial to their health, enabling them to live for longer, to be more resilient to external anti-oxidant stress, and to be more productive.
we found that supplementation with CBD will potentially support the immune system of honeybees through stimulating the antioxidant system
“After a series of studies in cages and in colony conditions, we found that supplementation with CBD will potentially support the immune system of honeybees through stimulating the antioxidant system (protection against oxidative stress affecting cells and their biochemistry). Depending on the need, the effects can be obtained regardless of the method of administration, but for the best results, we suggest using CBD in nutritional supplements (direct, faster action). In addition, research confirms that the active substance CBD may be responsible for the positive effect of the hemp extract.”
Survival of the human race may be strongly linked to how we look after and live harmoniously in our environment. Studies such as the above, which aim to preserve and bolster tiny insects such as bees that contribute enormously to all life on the planet, are much needed.