The buzz about bees and climate change

The buzz about bees and climate change

By Alex Amonette

Bees are on the path to extinction due to climate change and other factors, such as pesticides, parasites, pathogens, changes in land use, and habitat loss, according to a new report issued by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

Why should we care?

“Anybody that likes to eat food should care about bees because one out of every three bites that we eat or one out of every three sips that we drink comes directly from a bee’s pollination service,” said Sarah Red-Laird, Executive Director at BeeGirl.org.

“That is a lot of our fruits, our vegetables, foods that boast the most color, flavor, vitamins, and minerals.  Bees also pollinate plants that our cows and goats eat.  So if apple pie is your favorite food, you need a bee to pollinate the apples.  If you like it à la mode, then you need to have a bee pollinate the alfalfa that the cows eat to produce the milk,” said Red-Laird.

Bees with pollenBee basics

Bees are the “workhorses” of the insect world. They co-evolved with flowers and transfer pollen from plant to plant, ensuring the survival of a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, nuts, fiber, and flowers.  Crops such as alfalfa, apples, almonds, blueberries, cherries, cucumbers, cashews, cotton, and cacao depend on the world’s 20,000 species of bees, who produce hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of food.

Of the 4,000 species of North American bees that live north of Mexico, only 40 are introduced species, including the European Honeybee.  Wild bees are often super tiny and they don’t sting; they just pollinate flowers and the foods we love to eat.

“You can really tell if a fruit hasn’t gotten adequate bee pollination. They are not as sweet, not as big and flavorful. The more pollination you have, the higher the yield, the food will be more dense and have more vitamins and minerals,” said Red-Laird.

The first records of beekeeping date to 2400 BC. In 1622, the first European colonists in Jamestown introduced Honey Bees in North America. Bees were vital to the pioneer settlers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who adopted the beehive as its symbol for hard work and industry; it is on Utah’s state seal.

The Plight of the Bee

Climate change has led to changes in the distribution of many pollinating bumblebees, butterflies, and other pollinators in addition to the plants that depend upon them, posing a threat to the global food supply.

“When global warming has happened at various times in the past two million years, it has taken the planet about 5,000 years to warm 5 degrees. The predicted rate of warming for the next century is at least 20 times faster,” according to NASA. New data show that our global heat temperature records are increasing. In 2015, the surface temperatures of the Earth were the warmest “since modern record keeping began in 1880”.

Given time, bees and plants can migrate to keep up with the changing climate. But, the rate of warming has proven too fast for them to adapt.

Independent of the adverse effects of pesticides and land use changes, Canadian researchers report in Science that wild bees, like the bumble bees, can’t move north fast enough to cope with warmer temperatures. The loss rate is very rapid and nearly the same across continents.

Lead author, Jeremy T. Kerr, said, “We already know that extreme heat in southern Europe, for example, has wiped out local populations of some bumblebee species.” Other species, such as North America’s rusty-patched bumblebee, have already gone nearly extinct.

Red-Laird explained that bumblebees are huge with a fat hairy body and little tiny wings. They can fly a couple of dozen yards and then go back to their nests. They cannot fly for miles and miles and are not built to travel.

The Plight of the Beekeeper

Beekeeping is a multi-million dollar business in the United States. Migrant beekeepers take their hives from orchard to orchard, farm to farm.  The hives are already in decline from pesticides and mites, and now impacts of climate change are taking a toll.

Red-Laird said, “Flood events wipe out bees. Bees starve to death in drought. Drought has dried up water resources. The beekeeper has to replace flower nectar with a sugar solution. They have to get a crew out to feed bees. That costs gas, time, and money.”

Recently, a California almond orchardist removed 10,000 almond acres from production. Red-Laird explained, “Almond prices are starting to decline; that affects beekeepers big time.  So many rely on almond pollination rather than honey production, as their biggest source of income. Most commercial beekeepers go to almonds and do pollination, and that covers their bills for the year. Then, they come home and produce honey or other things to sell such as queens and bees.”

Western wildfires, increasing in frequency and duration due to rising temperatures, cause smoke. Bees breathe through their exoskeleton and are sensitive to air particulates.

Red-Laird said, “The smoke is hard on them because they can’t breathe. It’s really up to the beekeeper to make sure the hive is well-ventilated. Last summer, during fire season we put quart-sized jars of cool water on each hive to keep them hydrated. They drank a full jar of water per day.” A hive has about 75,000 bees.

But “Honey Bees have humans to steward them; bumblebees don’t have that luxury,” said Red-Laird.

What We Can Do

“I feel that we are to the point where we can see that climate change is a human-caused phenomenon; it’s our responsibility to take care of the animals. We must be proactive. We need to identify certain areas that have flowers endemic to a region, which are important to bees and other pollinators, and make sure they are protected from development.  Further, everyone can plant more flowers,” said Red-Laird.

We can save half the land and half of the sea as refuges. It “can be put together from large and small fragments around the world to remain relatively natural, without removing people living there or changing property rights, according to Professor Emeritus, E.O. Wilson, in a recent Op Ed. This would let us save upward of “90 percent of the rest of life,” Wilson said.

We can ask our Congressional representatives to enact the Carbon Fee and Dividend, the best, first-step to quickly reduce the use of fossil fuels, the primary contributor to global warming today.

Red-Laird also advocates a switch in our farming practices. “To me, the bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity for growth, a new era for small, local diversified farming. This is an amazing opportunity for us get back to our farming roots,” said Red-Laird.

Visit NRCS and Extension’s website on bees to learn more and find out how you can help.

Alex Amonette
Alex Amonette is a freelance technical and grant writer/editor, lives in cattle and sheep country, and raises vegetables and hay.

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