America’s Wild Bee Populations Are Dwindling at Alarming Rates
United States — “It’s clear that pollinators are in trouble,” cautioned Taylor Ricketts, lead author of a study mapping the decline in pollinator populations by researchers with the University of Vermont, published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Despite Ricketts’ rather restrained statement, the study’s findings clearly indicate the pollinators — specifically, wild bees — aren’t the only ones in trouble. According to the study:
If losses of these crucial pollinators continue, the new nationwide assessment indicates that farmers will face increasing costs — and that the problem may even destabilize the nation’s crop production.
Between 2008 and 2013, wild bee populations across the contiguous U.S. declined an alarming 23%, according to the research team led by UVM’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics researcher, Insu Koh. Perhaps even more gravely, 39% of all croplands that depend on native pollinators — more than $3 billion of the U.S. agricultural economy — “face a threatening mismatch between rising demand for pollination and a falling supply of wild bees.”
Following a June 2014 presidential memorandum warning about the “significant loss of pollinators, including honey bees, native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies,” the White House called for a “national assessment of wild pollinators and their habitats” — which led to this study and its stunning findings.
Some of the most vital farmlands in the U.S., the researchers discovered, could be seriously jeopardized if the decline in pollinator populations can’t be reined in and reversed. One-hundred-thirty-nine counties “in key agricultural regions of California, the Pacific Northwest, the upper Midwest and Great Plains, west Texas, and the southern Mississippi River valley” were identified by the study to “have the most worrisome mismatch between falling wild bee supply and rising crop pollination demand.”
Those counties tend toward either of two issues: they grow specialty crops that are heavily dependent on pollinators, or they grow very large quantities of crops that aren’t as pollinator-dependent. But of marked concern are areas with crops both most heavily dependent on pollinators — such as pumpkins, watermelons, pears, peaches, plums, apples, and blueberries — that are also experiencing sharp declines in the supply of pollinators and increased demand for them.
“These are crops most likely to run into pollination trouble,” Ricketts, who is also director of the Gund Institute, explained, “whether that’s increased costs for managed pollinators, or even destabilized yields.”
While threats to bees and other pollinators from pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and disease may be widely known and reported about, the researchers found a striking parallel between bee population decline and something activists have been warning about for years: monoculture. Loss of natural habitat could be the most insidious and understated cause for concern found in this study:
“In 11 key states where the new study shows bees in decline, the amount of land tilled to grow corn spiked by 200 percent in five years — replacing grasslands and pastures that once supported bee populations. ‘These results reinforce recent evidence that increased demand for corn in biofuel production has intensified threats to natural habitats in corn-growing regions,’ the new study notes.”
This is particularly distressing, considering wild bees provide some crops with the majority of their necessary pollination, while in crops more heavily dependent on managed pollinators, wild bees’ pollination assistance can increase yield. Researchers are hopeful the study’s mapped results will lead to aggressive conservation efforts. This mapping was the first of its kind. As Koh said, “Now we have a map of the hotspots. It’s the first spatial portrait of pollinator status and impacts in the U.S.”
“By highlighting regions with loss of habitat for wild bees, government agencies and private organizations can focus their efforts at the national, regional, and state scales to support these important pollinators for more sustainable agriculture and natural landscapes,” said Rufus Isaacs of Michigan State University, one of the co-authors of the study.
“Most people can think of one or two types of bee, but there are 4,000 species in the U.S. alone,” Ricketts explained. “Wild bees are a precious natural resource we should celebrate and protect. If managed with care, they can help us continue to produce billions of dollars in agricultural income and a wonderful diversity of nutritious food.”
Hopefully, this sounding of the alarm bells will be heeded with the seriousness it deserves.
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