Will the Extinction of Bees Really Mean the End of Humanity?
By Lisa Egan
Feared at best and considered a useless, disposable nuisance at worst, bees are among the most underappreciated creatures on the planet.
That’s a shame because our very existence relies on the tiny buzzing creatures.
We’ve known for years that bee populations all across North America and Europe are collapsing at an alarming rate.
This is a huge threat to our food supply. One-third of all the food we eat comes from plants that are pollinated by insects, and 80% of those crops are pollinated by bees. It also has big implications for our meat supply as well: plants (like alfalfa) that feed animals are pollinated by bees.
The largest international survey of insect pollinators found that just 2 percent of wild bee species now account for 80 percent of global crop pollination.
Put bluntly, if all the bees die, humanity will follow.
Worldwide, there are nearly 20,000 known species of bees in seven recognized biological families. Of those, 4,000 calls the United States home. Bees exist on every continent except Antarctica. Wherever you find insect-pollinated, flowering plants you will find bees.
Native bees come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors, but one thing they all have in common is their important role as pollinators.
Here are just some of the fruits and veggies bumble bees help pollinate: Squash, pumpkin, zucchini, alfalfa, cranberries, apples, green beans, scarlet beans, runner beans, cucumber, strawberries, tomatoes, sweet peppers, onions, potatoes, blueberries, cherries, kiwifruit, raspberries, blackberries, plums, and melons.
According to a Cornell University study published in 2012, crops pollinated by honeybees and other insects contributed $29 billion to United States farm income in 2010.
As you can see, bees are a crucial part of our ecosystem. Our food supplies – and essentially, our lives – rely on them.
Unfortunately, last year, a species of bumblebee that was once a common sight across much of the US was declared an endangered species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in January of 2017. Endangered species are animals and plants that are in danger of becoming extinct. Identifying, protecting and recovering endangered species is a primary objective of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species program, according to the agency’s website.
The rusty patched bumble bee was abundant across 28 states from Connecticut to South Dakota and up into Canada just 20 years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said, but is now “balancing precariously on the brink of extinction.”
The FWS explains why saving the rusty-patched bumble bee is so important:
The decline of the rusty patched bumble bee happened relatively recently and very dramatically. This insect was once common, widespread and abundant, but within only 20 years is now almost extinct. The causes of that decline are continuing to act across a broad geographic area, impacting other native pollinators. From the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean and from the Midwest north into much of eastern Canada, pollinators and other invertebrates are harmed by the same activities pushing the rusty patched towards extinction. Preventing extinction of this bumble bee will help address those factors and identify how they work together to harm native bee and other pollinator populations, such as monarch butterflies.
There are many insects and invertebrates that are less well-known and studied than the rusty patched bumble bee. Other species may be declining for the same or similar reasons but we have not been tracking them, so their loss is unknown. Conserving the bumble bee is likely to help conserve other animals.
Our native pollinators, including native bees, are important to the productivity of our farms and our natural areas. Pollinators are essential for the continued reproduction of many plants and the animals that feed on those plants.
The rusty patched bumble bee has declined by 87 percent in the last 20 years. The species is likely to be present in only 0.1% of its historical range.
This beautifully made video from bioGraphicMagazine shares the story of the rusty-patched bumble bee and its journey to becoming listed as endangered.
There are many potential reasons for the rusty-patched bumble bee decline including habitat loss, intensive farming, disease, pesticide use, and climate change.
Scientists believe the declining health of bees is related to “complex interactions among multiple stressors”:
- Colony Collapse Disorder
- Pests (e.g., varroa mite), pathogens (e.g., the bacterial disease American foulbrood) and viruses.
- Poor nutrition (e.g., due to loss of foraging habitat and increased reliance on supplemental diets).
- Pesticide exposure.
- Bee management practices (e.g., long migratory routes to support pollination services).
- Lack of genetic diversity.
“This bee’s dramatic decline is not the result of any one event,” GrrlScientist explained in an article for Forbes:
“Instead, it is the result of many human-caused factors that feed back on each other and amplify their effects. Both urban and agricultural sprawl certainly play an important role. Agriculture’s shift from small family farms producing a variety of crops to huge corporate monopolies that produce just one or two crops have destroyed vast stretches of available habitat fragments filled with native wildflowers and terrain that feed and house bumble bees and other native pollinator species.”
Sarina Jepsen, Director of Endangered Species and Aquatic Conservation at the Xerces Society, added:
“Of additional concern is the widespread use of persistent, long-lasting, highly toxic insecticides within the range of the rusty patched bumble bee, which pose a threat to its continued existence.”
Bumblebees are uniquely susceptible to extinction because unlike honeybees, which have large (>10,000 individuals) perennial hives, bumble bees produce smaller annual colonies (50-1,500 individuals). Their smaller annual population sizes, life cycle, and genetic makeup put them at higher risk.
While the endangerment of the rusty-patched bumble bee is generating a lot of buzz, it isn’t the only species that are facing some degree of extinction risk, according to the Xerces Society:
Alarmingly, recent work by the Xerces Society in concert with IUCN Bumble Bee Specialist Group, indicates that some species have experienced rapid and dramatic declines more than others. In fact, more than one quarter (28%) of all North American bumble bees are facing some degree of extinction risk. While some species have received considerable conservation attention, other species such as the Suckley cuckoo bumble bee and the variable cuckoo bumble bee have been largely overlooked.
FWS Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius said that the bumblebee, and pollinators like it, play a vital role in the lives of human beings, NBC News reported last year:
“Pollinators are small but mighty parts of the natural mechanism that sustains us and our world. Without them, our forests, parks, meadows and shrublands, and the abundant, vibrant life they support, cannot survive, and our crops require laborious, costly pollination by hand.”
Bumblebees are uniquely important pollinators – they are the chief pollinator of many economically important crops, according to FWS:
They are not picky about where they get their nectar and pollen – almost any source of flower will do. Bumble bees are able to fly in cooler temperatures and lower light levels than many other bees, which makes them excellent crop pollinators. They also perform a behavior called “buzz pollination,” in which the bee grabs the pollen-producing structure of the flower in her jaws and vibrates her wing muscles. These vibrations dislodge pollen from the flower. Some plants, including tomatoes, peppers, and cranberries, benefit from buzz pollination. Even for crops that can be self-pollinated (for example, some tomatoes), the plant produces more and bigger fruits with bumble bee-aided pollination. In natural areas, bumble bees pollinate plants that provide food for other wildlife. By conserving this species, other species of pollinators simultaneously benefit.
The good news is that there are things that can be done to help conserve bee populations.
Here’s what you can do to help the rusty-patched bumble bee and other pollinators.
Provide flowering plants from April through October (early spring through fall).
Plant native wildflowers that bloom throughout the year in containers on your windowsill, porch or deck, or in your garden. Since these flowers attract bumblebees and other pollinators, they will enhance pollination of your fruit and vegetable crops too. If you’d like to know more about which plants the rusty patch bumble bee really likes, here’s a very detailed resource: Plants Favored By Rusty Patched Bumble Bee
Fruit trees typically bloom early in the spring, which is a critical time for foraging bumblebee queens. Try to ensure that your new plants have not been treated with neonicotinoids or other systemic pesticides. Avoid invasive non-native plants and remove them if they invade your yard.
Because most queens overwinter in small holes on or just below the ground’s surface, avoid raking, tilling or mowing your yard until April or May. If you do need to mow, do so with the mower blade set at the highest safe level.
Many native bumblebees build their nests in undisturbed soil, abandoned rodent burrows, or clumps of grass. Preserve un-mown, brushy areas and do not destroy bumblebee nests when you find them. Reduce soil tilling and mowing where bumblebees might nest.
Avoid all pesticide use. In particular, steer clear of systemic pesticides such as neonicotinoids, which are taken up by the vascular systems of plants. This means bees and other pollinators are exposed to the poison long after a product has been applied when they feed on the plant’s nectar and pollen.
When purchasing plants, ask your garden supplier to ensure that they have not been treated with neonicotinoids or other systemic pesticides.
Instead of using pesticides, use a “companion planting” system to discourage pests from making an all-you-can-eat buffet of your garden. For more on sustainable pest management, please see this guide from Xerces Society.
For more information on companion planting for natural pest control, here’s an in-depth guide: The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Pest and Disease Control: A Complete Guide to Maintaining a Healthy Garden and Yard the Earth-Friendly Way.
Report the bees you see in your yard or community to Bumble Bee Watch, a citizen-science project sponsored by the Xerces Society and five North American partners.
Build nests for native bees. They are easy to make – instructions can be found here.
For more information on how to manage, restore, or enhance your property for the rusty patched bumble bee, please refer to this guide from FWS.
Create a “bee highway.” Several years ago, people in Oslo, Norway, created a route through the city with enough feeding stations for bumblebees. Organizers asked the public and local business owners to plant bee-friendly plants on their property, rooftops, and businesses along a route from east to west through the city. If you’d like to learn more about how to create a bee highway in your community, please read First Bee Highway Set Up in Oslo.
Here’s how to protect bee habitats during the fall and winter months: Put Down Those Pruners: Pollinators Need Your ‘Garden Garbage!’