Writer: Rachel Cooper
Editor: Emily Vialls
Artist: Zach Ng
The status of bee populations is a prominent topic in conservation. Responsible for pollinating around 85% of the world’s crops, these insects are vastly important for food production. They help to fertilize plants by transferring pollen from one to another, allowing them to develop edible products (such as fruit) for consumption. Widespread concern for honey bee colony losses is hence understandable, but there are over 20,000 bee species also essential for maintaining biodiversity, functioning ecosystems, and efficient pollination. Native bee species, such as wild, solitary bees, aren’t commonly used in agriculture. They are often overlooked, increasing the severity of their decline.
The Importance of Native Bees
Honey bees are used in agriculture across the globe, but relying on a single species to pollinate the world’s crops is highly precarious. Their limited genetic diversity increases the risk of colonies being wiped out by disease. This has been seen in recent years when “Colony Collapse Disorder” was discovered in 2006, causing a dramatic loss of honey bee colonies in California.
Native bees are species indigenous to a given region without human intervention and research has shown that some species are better pollinators than honey bees. Solitary species such as mason bees, leafcutters, and bumble bees are even being advised for agricultural use. Regardless of honey bee presence, these species of bee maintain a high yield of many crop types. They are “messier” as they don’t have secure pollen pouches, and this increases the chance of successful pollination. Some crops, such as tomatoes, can’t be pollinated by honey bees. Tomato plants are pollinated by bumble bees, as they have a special technique called “Buzz Pollination” that honey bees lack. Tomato flowers maintain a tight hold on their pollen, so bumble bees vibrate their bodies close to the flowers to shake it out. Moreover, a larger diversity of pollinators will lead to a larger diversity of fertilized plants, allowing environmental stability for many animals that live in green habitats.
The survival of these lesser-known native species is essential for maintaining the ever-increasing demand for crop production. Unlike honey bees, other bee species don’t live in colonies. Many native species are solitary and live alone in nests burrowed into trees or soil, making them hard to track. Despite having little information surrounding their abundance, scientists believe they are undoubtedly endangered. One study found ~25% less species were observed between 2006-2015 compared to the 1990s, and these numbers are declining still.
Do Honey Bees Affect Native Bees?
Pesticides, habitat loss and climate change are common culprits behind bee loss, although a more alarming factor has arisen which presents a disturbing truth about honey bees. There is evidence of declining native bee populations in areas introduced to apiculture. Interspecific (inter-species) competition ensues in beekeeping areas, forcing native species to feed from less nutritional plants or forage further from their nests.
Honey bees could also affect plant community compositions by invasive mutualism. When introduced to a new area, managed honey bees prefer to pollinate exotic plants. This causes a spread of invasive plant species, subsequently reducing the population of native plants which is the main food source for native bees.
Moreover, honey bees may affect wild bees through the spread of pathogens. They are social species, so live in dense populations as opposed to their solitary counterparts. Disease can spread through their colonies and further spread to other species. Such diseases include Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) which can easily wipe out native populations.
With this evidence, enthusiasm for beekeeping – although set with good intentions–may not be beneficial for conserving wild bee species. Beyond honey bees, we can’t forget about native bees that are in desperate need for conservation efforts.
Potential Solutions and Conclusion
So how can we help native bees? One solution is to grow a micro-habitat of wildflowers in your back garden. Since each species requires a different set of natural resources, maintaining a large diversity of plants will greatly increase the diversity of native pollinators. Further conservation efforts include methods such as planting hedgerows or creating artificial nesting sites. Ecologists are also beginning to adapt systematic approaches to aid their conservation, such as restoring habitats formerly degraded by agriculture. Invasive plant species are removed and replaced with native plants to restore the optimal plant community for native bees.
Promoting these lesser-known bee species will greatly benefit both agriculture and the environment. Maintaining genetic variation will reduce disease susceptibility and support the ever-increasing demand for crop production. Wild ecosystems will be stabilized, and the biodiversity of both plants and animals will flourish. This is why native bees should not be forgotten.