What does fashion have to do with the plight of the bees? Normally when we think about the environment, carbon emissions, oceans full of plastic pollution and our threatened pollinator insects, we immediately think of our cars, the trees we are cutting down, or the excess of plastic rubbish that our disposable society has created. Rarely do we pause to think about the immense impact that our wardrobe has on our environment. While we may rarely think about it, the impact of clothing is significant. The choices that we make in the fashion we buy even has an impact on the plight of the bees, which is the focus of this article. If we are careful with our choices, our wardrobe also as the potential to have a positive and protective effect on bee populations as well. But this requires that we become informed consumers, so we can make positive choices.
Before we dive into the ways that our clothing can be good or bad for the bees, let’s start with a brief overview of why we all need to be concerned about bee populations and their health.
Why we should be concerned about the bees
We should be very worried about what is happening to the bees- honey bees and native- because, quite simply, we need them more than they need us. Bees are responsible for pollinating around one third of our food supply and up to 90% of wild plants, as well as increasing yields in many of our other plant based crops, including textile crops and also livestock crops such as alfalfa, which are used to feed the animals raised for meat consumption. Without the bees, and other beneficial insect pollinators, our food supply becomes more precarious. Honey beekeepers work in collaboration with many farmers growing food crops to ensure that the crops can be sufficiently pollinated. It is also worth noting that two of the three key dangers to bees are the same for other wild insects that can pollinate our crops, so if the bees are endangered, so too are our other pollinators.
The plight of the bees
Much has been said about the worrying decline of the bee population in recent years. In Europe and the US particularly, massive declines in wild and honey bee populations have been recorded, particularly the significant threat of colony collapse, a condition that arises when bees and larvae become infected with viruses caused by the parasitic Verroa mite, leading to death and deformity in the bee populations. Australia has avoided this phenomena to date, thanks to the fact that we don’t yet have the Verroa mite on our shores. However, honey bee and wild bee populations are still under stress, as are insect populations around the globe. A recent study estimated that the world’s insect population has declined by 75% in recent decades.
The two key factors, other than the mite, that are impacting in the health of bee populations. These are exposure to pesticides and fungicides and declining access to wildflowers and other sources of pollen. These are dangers that affect the health of wild bee and insect populations, both of which are also important for pollination of crops that we rely on for our food security. The expansion of agricultural lands has largely been blamed for this phenomena.
With increased monocropping and turning over of grasslands and bushlands to agricultural cropping comes a reduction in food sources for bees. It becomes much for difficult for bees to find the wildflowers that the rely on for food. In some locations, environmental groups are encouraging the planting of wildflowers at the edges of agricultural lands, and between fields, to reverse the damage that these agricultural lands have done to the bees food sources.
Exposure to pesticides is the other danger for bees that comes from the expansion of agriculture. Many countries, including Australia, have protocols in place to minimise the exposure of bees to the pesticides that are sprayed on crops. In most agricultural areas, honey bee keepers work with food crop growers to pollinate their crops, and the bee friendly protocols also require that farmers contact local beekeepers when they plan to spray their crops, so that the bees exposure to the spray can be reduced. This helps to keep the honey bee populations safe from pesticide toxicity. However, these protocols only deal with managed honey bee populations, and there is no way to manage the exposure of wild native bees and other insects to the pesticide spray, which can drift many kilometers away from the crops that are being sprayed. In fact, studies suggest that the main impacts of neonecticides- the pesticide banned in the EU due to its harms to bees- is on wild bee populations rather than on managed bee colonies. Research has also shown that these pesticides have a cumulative effect, so while bee populations may not be killed by a single exposure, the toxicity build over time with each repeated exposure. Exposure to certain fungicides has also been shown to increase the toxicity of pesticides to bees, so the combination and repeated nature of exposure poses the threat to bee populations in and around conventional agricultural lands.
Bees and Textile Crops
Textile crops can both help and hinder bee populations. Bees are pollinators for cotton, flax (the crop used to produce linen textile) and hemp. This means that bees can have a mutually beneficial relationship with these crops, providing they are managed in ways that are safe for the bees. Bees can use these crops as a food source, and the crops benefit from bee pollination, as it has been shown that pollination by bees can increase yields. It has been suggested that hemp crops could actually have a positive effect on bee health, as the hemp has medicinal properties as well as being a crop for textiles. This is currently being studied, but early studies indicate that this hypothesis has some credibility.
However, these benefits can only arise if the hemp, cotton and flax farmers carefully manage their crops to promote bee health. In practice, this means avoiding or minimising the use of fungicides and pesticides. Genetically modified cotton is commonly chosen as a crop because it has a reduced requirement for pesticides and it therefore considered safer for beneficial insects. In fact, these crops are designed to allow beneficial insects to be part of the pest control process for the cotton crop. However, GM crops still do utilise some pesticides, and some farmers continue to use more than the standard recommendations for the crop. In Australia, one honey bee keeper in an important food bowl region has claimed that the arrival of GM cotton farming to the region has has a significant impact on his bees. He claims that spray drifts from the cotton farms have poisoned his bees and endangered entire bee colonies, which he usually uses to support pollination of feed crops such as almonds in this critical food bowl region. GM cotton is also designed to combat one particular pest (bollworm). However, in tropical areas, the GM crop isn’t considered an effective way to reduce pesticide because there are a number of other pests that attack the cotton crops in warmer climates.
Choosing Bee-Friendly Fashion
Bee-friendly fashion is clothing made from textiles that have a minimal impact on bee populations. Hemp is a very bee-friendly textile. It is a hardy crop that naturally controls weeds and pests, so it does not require pesticides. As was discussed above, it also has potential positive benefits for bees as a food source with medicinal properties. Linen is another bee friendly textile, which has minimal use for pesticides and is a good food source for bees.
If looking to buy cotton, there are many reason to choose organic. When it comes to bee health, choosing organic is really the only way to ensure that bees are not exposed to pesticides. Some GM cotton may be safe for bees, but as we’ve seen above it is difficult to really know that the particular cotton you are choosing has really reduced the use of pesticides. Cotton can also be a food source for bees as long as they won’t be exposed to pesticides when pollinating the fields. We choose organic cotton for our collections, for a number of sustainability reasons including to protect the bees.
Other bee friendly textiles include animal based textiles. Wool, for example, does use pesticides, but only as a direct application on the sheep to kill of parasites. For this reason, pesticide use in wool is not a danger to bee populations. Fungicides and pesticides are also a danger to silk worms, so it is reasonable to assume that silk plantations are not harmful to bees.
So in summary, your bee-friendly fashion options are:
- Organic Cotton
Choose these fabrics and you can rest assured that your wardrobe does not to unnecessary harm to bees.
Summer Edwards -
Founder, tortoise & lady grey
slow fashion - sustainable style
Come and see and hear Summer Edwards speaking about her extensive knowledge of sustainable textiles and bees at our launch NATIVE POLLEN Collection launch.