It started with a David Attenborough program highlighting the decline in bee population and the impact a decline in bees and other pollinators would have on our food production and security, and consequently, our economy. John McCaskill, Rotary Club of Canterbury in Australia, identified Rotary as a perfect organisation to highlight the issue and take it forward. John engaged an enthusiastic group of Rotarians, beekeepers, and others in a committee under the banner: ‘Rotarians for Bees’ (RFB).
Then at the 2018 Rotary Convention in Toronto: two Australians connected half a world away from home, and brainstormed about how Rotary could help conserve bee populations. From that conversation, in later conversations at kitchen tables and Rotary meetings, grew Rotarians for Bees (RFB), an adventure equipping Rotarians and the wider community to care for pollinators and the human food supply that depends on them.
Honey bee populations worldwide are declining under the combined impact of disease, pesticides, climate change, and habitat loss. This poses a huge threat to human food security.
“Honey bee pollination (53 crops) – 75% of our food crops– contribute $14.2 billion to the Australian economy,” says Pat Armstrong, an ESRAG Director and Chair of ESRAG’s Australian Regional Chapter. “People can feel helpless before a problem of this magnitude. They need something they can do themselves.” There is a similar story for populations of other pollinators, such as native bees, butterflies, birds and mammals.
In Toronto, Rotarian Susie Cole invited Pat to speak at a meeting of Rotarians interested in bees “Susie could see the potential of people interested in bees connecting with ESRAG,” Pat recalls. In less than a year, Rotarians have created vital connections between beekeepers, industry groups, funders of scientific research, and a rapidly-growing network of Rotarians.
The buzz (“there is no end to the bee jokes!” Pat says wryly) started with and led by John McCaskill and the Rotary Club of Canterbury, Australia. It spread exponentially when Pat invited the fledgling Rotarians for Bees to mount a booth at a multi-district Rotary conference which drew over 1,500 people from across Victoria. Artistic people designed a stand with a beautiful banner and logo (a wheel of bees) to entice people to step in and learn. “At that conference alone we signed up almost 80 people,” Pat says. “We’re connecting people around a common interest and giving them something that meets their needs.”
This includes specific, concrete actions ordinary people can take themselves, from setting up a small box with bamboo sticks, each with a small nesting hole for native bees (“a Bee B & B,” says Pat) to planting flowers that attract pollinators. “Creating Rotary Pollinator Parks is well within Rotary clubs’ capability,” Pat says. As Christmas approaches Down Under, R4B plans to sell flowering plants for Christmas gifts to raise awareness and help Australians be part of the solution to food security.
R4B draws on other essential Rotary capacities: needs assessment, asset-mapping, and strategic planning. They are learning about the diversity of Australia’s professional and amateur beekeeper groups, the challenges of reaching the community with vital information about protecting bee populations, and emerging scientific knowledge.
R4B has emerged as a clearinghouse and connector, informing the wider public about how they can become part of the solution. (See the IPBES Assessment on Pollinators). R4B’s Ted and Rosemary Waghorne “have written wonderful papers, Pat says, “with summaries of conference papers on pollinators from RICON in Hamburg.”
R4B and ESRAG are now networking with the Australian Honeybee Industry Council and research funders including the WHEEN Foundation. “We’ve discovered various needs, some beyond our scope,” Pat says. “It’s all about forming partnerships, bringing together different ideas, different questions. Rotarians can be the catalysts in all this.”
Rotarian conviviality is the secret spice. “The working group meets monthly in a wonderful spirit of fellowship,” Pat says. Some of the most fruitful conversations have occurred over “tea, coffee, biscuits, and cheese, in someone’s home.”
Biscuit by biscuit, bee by bee, R4B is a great example of how Rotarians can build one thread – in this case, the love of bees – into a tapestry of solutions to a massive environmental challenge.