Bees are essential for the health of people and the planet. Unfortunately, environmental degradation caused by encroaching climate change is threatening endangered bee species and other insect pollinators. These threats are anthropocentric, meaning they are a direct consequence of human activities.
The humble honey bee is a small and assuming creature, but they play a very important role in managing the globe’s ecosystems. As pollinators, they are crucial within the life cycle of plants, forming one link within a long chain of interdependent species, each one providing a vital environmental service for human life. However, the honey bee as well as other endangered bee species are being threatened by the advance of climate change, placing the species in a sensitive position that can lead to harmful impacts on global biodiversity.
Pollination is a natural relationship that exists between plants, which require pollen to reproduce, and pollinators to distribute the pollen. As such, honey bees are integral to maintaining stability in agricultural production. To illustrate this in numbers, insect pollinators account for roughly 35% of total global food production, and of that number, honey bees take up 90% of that workload. And to illustrate this in economic value, global pollination services account for USD$577 billion annually, or about 10% of all agricultural markets. Therefore, declining bee populations would negatively affect the chain of agricultural production. Far-reaching impacts would ripple through the global ecosystem and create global food insecurity, nutritional deficiencies, and further imbalance parts of the world that are already sensitive due to climate change.
There are several threats that challenge the existence of the honey bee, most of which are the result of human activity. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a phenomenon that was first identified in 2006, describing the steady and annual decline in bee colonies around the world. These losses are caused by things such as agricultural land development, pesticide and fungicide usage, increasing regional temperatures, and the introduction of invasive species.
Agricultural land development is the main cause of CCD due to deforestation and clear cutting, destroying natural habitats for bee colonies. For instance, in Brazil, their main agricultural products are coffee, canola, soybeans, apples, passion fruit, and tomatoes, the last of which yielded a profit of USD$2 billion in 2011 alone. As such, the continual appropriation of land for agricultural production is expected to inflict large-scale colony reduction in Brazil. Alongside that is the heavy usage of pesticides or fungicides, which are known to directly harm bees and pollinators. Neonicotinoids, a pesticide, are among the most widely used in agricultural industries across the United States and Europe. They saturate plants and pollen, thereby poisoning bees when they try to feed on them. By reducing food sources and lowering plant diversity, the nutritional capacity required to sustain existing bee colonies is further strained.
Increasing regional temperatures impact bee populations by causing widespread dispersion of their habitats. In Australia, the carpenter bee has been experiencing gradual displacement towards coastal and mountainous regions while also being driven closer to urbanised centres. Similar conditions are found in Europe and North America where rising temperatures and declining precipitation have contributed to lowered occupancy within arid regions. In both cases, close proximity to human cities, towns, or neighbourhoods would inflict unique urban stressors to bee colonies. Namely, things like smog or pollution.
Finally, invasive species like the small hive beetle have been seen on every continent since 1996, introduced by the global trade of products such as food, wax, and honey. The small hive beetle is a parasitic insect that harms most bees, and in 1998 alone, they accounted for USD$3 million of apiculture damage within Florida. The survival of the small hive beetle benefits from high soil temperature and humidity, factors caused by climate change that allow them to quickly reproduce and occupy large areas of land. It follows that continual warming would lead to higher small hive beetle populations, crowding out bee colonies.
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Despite these challenges, there are possible solutions. First, the most obvious thing to do is stop the usage of pesticides like neonicotinoids. This has already been done in Europe as early as the 1990s, when the French government started regulating its usage. It was banned in Germany in 2008, and in 2013, three million Europeans signed a petition which led to the creation of the European Food Safety Authority, imposing further restrictions and regulations on pesticide use.
Second, with shifting bee habitats, urban agriculture is a feasible option to decrease stressors on bee colonies. It has been shown to mitigate food insecurity, reduce heat island effects, and create sustainable and resilient communities through the provision of ecological refuges for native pollinators. Green roofs and increased garden spaces, along with protected public parks and dedicated apiculture farms would help in making the most efficient use out of available urban space.
Finally, land degradation is extensive due to the ever-increasing area needed for planting crops. To that end, establishing apiaries at an equivalent rate to the land being used would work towards bringing the equilibrium back into balance. National regulations could be implemented that require a certain amount of bee colonies for every square kilometre of crops. Government subsidy programmes would also encourage investment in protecting pollination services.
All in all, climate change doesn’t just impact humans. It impacts the species that sustain the earth’s vital ecosystem services. The honey bee forms just one link in a long chain of other species that support human life, but as with any chain, it is only as strong as its weakest link. Under the threats that are imposed by environmental degradation, the honey bee, along with other endangered bee species, are at greater risk than ever before.
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