By Sam Schipani
"Save the bees" is a rallying cry we've been hearing for years now—one that conjures up images of fuzzy black and yellow honeybees, sipping nectar from colorful flowers or swarming with their bee brethren among tessellated combs while human defenders spread the word about dwindling bee populations. But honeybees are at no risk of dying off. While disease, parasites, and other threats are certainly real problems for beekeepers, the total number of managed honeybees worldwide has risen by 45 percent over the last half century.
"Honeybees are not going to go extinct," said Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society. "We have more honeybee hives than we've ever had and that's simply because we manage honeybees. Conserving honeybees to save pollinators is like conserving chickens to save the birds."
Contrary to public perception, die-offs in honeybee colonies are an agricultural problem, not a conservation issue. First domesticated about 9,000 years ago, honeybees are not all that different from livestock. They are also not native to the U.S.; they were imported from Europe to help pollinate crops around 1622.
Meanwhile, native bees—of which there are more than 20,000 species varying in size, shape and color—are experiencing incredible losses. Of the nearly 4,000 native bee species in the U.S. alone, four native bumblebee species have declined 96 percent in the last 20 years, and three others are believed to have gone extinct. In the last 100 years, 50 percent of Midwestern native bee species disappeared from their historic ranges.
Scott Black dates widespread confusion about exactly which bees are at risk to around 2006, when the news of commercial honeybee colonies decimated by colony collapse disorder hit fever pitch.
The plight of the honeybees was elevated in the national conversation, but since this was the first time that pollinators had entered the public consciousness (the country's nosediving monarch populations had not yet made national news), the issue lacked clarity or nuance. At the time, Black recalls well-meaning activists and politicians who were shocked to learn that there were other pollinators besides honeybees.
Juan P. Gonzalez-Varo, a scientist from the University of Cambridge, said that the "lack of distinction" in public understanding between the agricultural problems faced by honeybees and the biodiversity issues related to wild pollinators is also fueled by misguided charity campaigns and media reports. He cites campaigns like Greenpeace's S.O.S. Bees, which only features honeybees in its visual materials and lumps the issues facing wild bees and honeybees together under the umbrella of ecological conservation.
"They are doing many things right and they are raising awareness," said Gonzalez-Varo. "The problem is the misconception of the role of managed honeybees in ecosystems."
The national concern for honeybees led to an explosion in research on honeybee loss and the dangers posed to crops. But comparatively little research has been done to understand wild native pollinator declines. Honeybee research is generally easier than wild bee research, because many wild bees can't survive outside of the narrow slice of habitat that they've adapted to. "You can do many things in research with honeybees because it's a domesticated animal," said Gonzalez-Varo. "It's totally the opposite when you are dealing with wild pollinators, where you have to work with real landscapes and communities."
The lack of research into wild pollinators is especially problematic considering research that shows managed honeybees can negatively impact native bees. When they are not completing agricultural pollination jobs, commercial beekeepers often keep their honeybees on public land. Honeybees forage year-round, traveling for miles to gather pollen and nectar from wildflowers in areas that native bees rely on for food.
Wild species, which are often solitary and have shorter active seasons, cannot always compete with the sheer number of honeybees in commercial hives, especially in low-rainfall years when wildflowers are scarce. A study of wild bumblebee populations along the California coast, where managed honeybees are critical to pollinating almond orchards, found that an increase in honeybees in a particular area was correlated with a drop in bumblebees.
The problem with spillover goes beyond competition—diseases from commercial hives can be transferred to wild species when the populations feed from the same flowers. As with other intensively farmed animals, overcrowding and homogenous diets have increased the level of pathogens and parasites in managed honeybee colonies. Researchers have found elevated disease rates in wild bees living near greenhouses that use managed bees in Canada, Ireland and England. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the rusty patched bumblebee, which was listed as endangered in early 2017 after declining more than 90 percent over the last decade, may owe that disappearance to diseases spread by commercial bees.
This is bad news for both bees and crops. Even in the presence of honeybees, wild bees play a crucial role in agricultural systems, ensuring stable crop production, boosting yields, and pollinating crops, like tomatoes, that honeybees either avoid for lack of nectar, or have pollen that is difficult for honeybees to reach.
Raising public awareness about the risks that pesticides and loss of habitat pose to bees is a good thing, said Gonzalez-Varo. In the U.S., beekeepers now lose about 40 percent of their colonies each year, and some of that is due to factors that are also a problem to native bees, like pesticides, insecticides, and diseases. But real awareness would recognize that what is good for honeybees is not always good for wild pollinators. "The main change that I would like to see is that beekeeping is truly considered an extractive activity," he said. "Many other extractive activities are allowed in protected areas like hunting and cattle grazing, but all of them are regulated. Until now, conservationists have been very permissive with beekeepers."
While honeybees may not be in danger of extinction, their populations are far from robust. According to Nomi Carmona, a national online organizer at the Sierra Club who works with pollinators, honeybee populations may have nominally increased over the years, but those inflated populations are partly the result of controversial practices like hive-splitting, artificially inseminating honeybee queens, and feeding colonies with corn syrup to boost numbers before crops begin to bloom. These practices decrease the genetic diversity in commercially managed hives.
"I think people would be really disturbed to know how honeybees are being treated," said Carmona. "The situation could certainly benefit from clarification."
When it comes to differentiating between honeybees and wild bees, some "Save the Bees" campaigns have tried to right earlier wrongs. The Honey Nut Cheerios Bring Back the Bees campaign, came under fire last year for giving away seed packets that could spread non-native plants and displace food sources for wild bee populations. Since then, General Mills has donated to the Xerces Society and University of Minnesota bee scholar, Dr. Marla Spivak, to help research and restore wild pollinator habitat.
"Although the brand's famous spokesbee, BuzzBee, and his honeybee friends may not be in danger of extinction like some other pollinators, Honey Nut Cheerios is committed to helping all pollinators thrive," a spokesperson from General Mills wrote in an email to Sierra.
But there is more work to be done. For starters, campaigns to save the bees, whether they are run by international environmental organizations, cereal companies, or government entities, could feature the amazing diversity of bees instead of the pervasive (and often fallacious) honeybee. Gonzalez-Varo lauds campaigns like Toronto's Pollinator Protection Strategy, which proudly features a metallic green sweat bee (also Toronto's Official Bee) across its website's banner.
"As with many other environmental issues," said Gonzalez-Varo, "education is the key."
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
- How to Build a Native Bee Hotel ›
- Beyond Honey Bees: Wild Bees Are Also Key Pollinators, and Some ... ›
New fossils uncovered in Argentina may belong to one of the largest animals to have walked on Earth.
- Groundbreaking Fossil Shows Prehistoric 15-Foot Reptile Tried to ... ›
- Skull of Smallest Known Dinosaur Found in 99-Million-Year Old Amber ›
- Giant 'Toothed' Birds Flew Over Antarctica 40 Million Years Ago ... ›
- World's Second-Largest Egg Found in Antarctica Probably Hatched ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
- Pruitt Guts the Clean Power Plan: How Weak Will the New EPA ... ›
- It's Official: Trump Administration to Repeal Clean Power Plan ... ›
- 'Deadly' Clean Power Plan Replacement ›
By Jonathan Runstadler and Kaitlin Sawatzki
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers have found coronavirus infections in pet cats and dogs and in multiple zoo animals, including big cats and gorillas. These infections have even happened when staff were using personal protective equipment.
- Gorillas in San Diego Test Positive for Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- Wildlife Rehabilitators Are Overwhelmed During the Pandemic. In ... ›
- Coronavirus Pandemic Linked to Destruction of Wildlife and World's ... ›
- Utah Mink Becomes First Wild Animal to Test Positive for Coronavirus ›
By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
By John R. Platt
The period of the 45th presidency will go down as dark days for the United States — not just for the violent insurgency and impeachment that capped off Donald Trump's four years in office, but for every regressive action that came before.
- Biden Announces $2 Trillion Climate and Green Recovery Plan ... ›
- How Biden and Kerry Can Rebuild America's Climate Leadership ... ›
- Biden's EPA Pick Michael Regan Urged to Address Environmental ... ›
- How Joe Biden's Climate Plan Compares to the Green New Deal ... ›