Beyond Honey Bees: Wild Bees Are Also Key Pollinators, and Some Species Are Disappearing
By Kelsey K. Graham
Declines in bee populations around the world have been widely reported over the past several decades. Much attention has focused on honey bees, which commercial beekeepers transport all over the U.S. to pollinate crops.
However, while honey bees are a vital part of our agricultural system, they are generally considered the chickens of the bee world—domesticated and highly managed for specific agricultural use. They are not native to North America and often can't be used as a surrogate for understanding what is happening with native wild bees—the focus of my research.
There are about 5,000 native bee species in North America. Many have shown no evidence of decline, and some are thriving in highly urbanized areas. But other species, including some that were previously common, are becoming harder and harder to find. As scientists work to understand bee decline, it is important to identify the unique roles that native bees play, and to identify threats specific to them.
One in every three bites of food we eat is made possible by bees. They pollinate almonds, apples, blueberries, squash, tomatoes and many other popular crops. They also pollinate alfalfa, which we feed to farm animals, so they support the meat component of our diet too.
We need bees for food security and to maintain healthy ecosystems. Bees pollinate flowering trees and wildflowers, which in turn provide food and homes for other animals and improve water, air and soil quality.
Along with honey bees, wild bees are also vital for crop pollination. Research has shown that the presence of wild bees increases yields across many types of crops. They often are more efficient at pollinating crops native to North America than honey bees. For example, a honey bee would have to visit a blueberry flower four times to deposit the same amount of pollen as a single visit from a bumble bee queen.
Wild bees have a unique way of extracting pollen from flowers called "buzz pollination." By shaking flowers at a certain frequency, more pollen will be released, thus allowing for more efficient pollination. Honey bees can't do this.
A sweat bee uses 'buzz pollination' to dislodge pollen grains from a flower. Bob Peterson
Bumble bees are particularly good at buzz pollination, so several species are now commercially managed. Increasing numbers of farmers who grow fruits, vegetables, tree nuts and flowers are now using either bumble bees alone or a mix of bumble bees and honey bees to pollinate their crops.
Bumble Bees in Distress
But some bumble bee species are in decline. The rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) once was distributed throughout the eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada, but now is found only in a few small populations in the Midwest. In March 2017, it became the first bee in the lower 48 states to be listed as an endangered species after its population shrank by an estimated 91 percent in 20 years. Other bumble bees, such as the American bumble bee (B. pensylvanicus) have declined more gradually.
Reasons for bumble bee decline include increased prevalence of pests and pathogens, poor nutrition and pesticide exposure. Many of these stressors are due to agricultural intensification, particularly in the Midwest. Traditionally, grassland prairies provided nutritionally dense, safe forage for bees. But most former prairie lands have been converted to corn and soybean fields or developed for commercial and residential use. As a result, bumble bees are increasingly exposed to pesticides and their food supply is shrinking.
Rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis).USGS
Why are some species thriving while others are declining? Some research suggests that traits such as a narrow or specialized diet and large body size, are associated with decline. But much more research is needed to fully understand which traits make species vulnerable, and to identify species that are especially at risk.
There are 46 species of bumble bee in North America; the other native bees (4,954-plus species) are vastly different in size, color and life history traits. Because native bees are so diverse, it is hard to identify a primary cause for wild bee decline. But as with bumble bees, poor nutrition and pesticide exposure are likely culprits. We also know that the majority of native bees nest in the ground, so they are vulnerable when natural areas are converted to tilled agricultural fields or paved over. Providing safe nesting areas for native bees is therefore vitally important to their conservation.
Conversation of grasslands to large-scale monoculture farms in the Midwest and northern Great Plains has reduced suitable habitat for pollinators. USDA / ERS
Measuring Bee Abundance and Diversity
I am part of a team at Michigan State University, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, that is working to fill in some of knowledge gaps about bees. Michigan has 465 documented bee species, each with unique life history traits It also has a diverse agricultural sector, ranging from specialty crops like apples, blueberries and tart cherries to large-scale commodity crops like corn and soybean. And Michigan habitats range from highly urbanized to pristine wilderness. This diversity helps us ask questions about how different landscapes affect the local bee community.
To determine how the state's bees are doing now, we need to know how abundant and diverse communities were in the past. Fortunately, Michigan has a rich history of surveying bees, dating back several decades. We are replicating these studies now to detect changes in bee communities.
Researchers collecting wild bees in Michigan with passive bowl traps and nets. Kelsey K. Graham / CC BY-ND
We are also sampling bees across different landscapes and regions to identify areas with low bee abundance or diversity where conservation efforts could have the greatest impact. But the only way to know whether these actions are effective is to track changes in bee communities going forward. Our project is providing an important baseline for future comparisons and assessments of conservation programs.
We are also monitoring the health of managed bumble bees and honey bees that provide pollination services to local crops. One strategy we are testing is whether management practices, such as wildflower plantings, can improve bee health.
Results from this project will provide the most complete assessment of bees in Michigan to date. Importantly, we are looking at all bee species, managed and wild, since they all play vital roles in maintaining a healthy agricultural system and ecosystem.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
By Brett Wilkins
In the latest of a flurry of proposed Green New Deal legislation, Reps. Cori Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Monday introduced the Green New Deal for Cities Act of 2021, a $1 trillion plan to "tackle the environmental injustices that are making us and our children sick, costing us our homes, and destroying our planet."
If approved, the bill would provide federal funding for state, local, tribal, and territorial governments to respond to the climate crisis, while creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in communities disproportionately affected by economic inequality.
"St. Louis and communities across the nation need the Green New Deal for Cities," Bush (D-Mo.) said in a statement introducing the bill. The St. Louis native added that Black children in her city "are 2.4 times more likely than white children to test positive for lead in their blood, and are 10 times more likely to visit the emergency room for asthma each year than white children."
"Black neighborhoods host the majority of the city's air pollution sources," Bush continued. "And there is a nuclear waste site—the West Lake Landfill, which is a catastrophe-in-progress."
"This legislation would make sure every city, town, county, and tribe can have a federally funded Green New Deal," she added. "This is a $1 trillion investment to tackle the environmental injustices that are making us and our children sick, costing us our homes, and destroying our planet."
We're introducing the Green New Deal for Cities. Here's what it means for you: ☀️ $1 trillion investment in our c… https://t.co/uJnnbM5NNx— Congresswoman Cori Bush (@Congresswoman Cori Bush)1618852007.0
Specifically, the GND4Cities would:
- Authorize $1 trillion, with a minimum of 50% of all investments going each to frontline communities and climate mitigation;
- Fund an expansive array of climate and environmental justice projects including wind power procurement, clean water infrastructure, and air quality monitoring;
- Support housing stability by conditioning funding to local governments to ensure they work with tenant and community groups to prevent displacement in communities receiving investment; and
- Support workers by including prevailing wage requirements, equitable and local hiring provisions, apprenticeship and workforce development requirements, project labor agreements, and "Buy America" provisions.
In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Bush explained that the Green New Deal for Cities is personal for her.
"I remember talking about lead paint as a child, hearing about it on the television and showing up at parks and people testing us for lead," she recalled. "It was like this thing when I was a kid, and it just went away."
Tune in to @STLonAir at noon to hear @RepCori discuss her and her colleagues' proposal for a Green New Deal for Cit… https://t.co/q3N0hmJndg— St. Louis Public Radio (@St. Louis Public Radio)1618845961.0
Bush said that "this whole thing is about saving lives," adding that "there are labor provisions in this bill to make sure that the workers are well-paid and well-treated for work."
"The urgency of this climate crisis and environmental racism demands that we equip our cities and our local governments with this funding," she added.
In her statement introducing the measure, Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said that "the GND4Cities would provide local governments the funding to create good-paying, union jobs repairing their infrastructure, improving water quality, reducing air pollution, cleaning up parks, creating new green spaces, and eliminating blight."
"The desire for these investments is there," Ocasio-Cortez added. "We need to give our local communities the funding and support to act."
Although only Monday, it's already been a busy week for Ocasio-Cortez and the Green New Deal. Earlier in the day, she and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) reintroduced the Green New Deal for Public Housing, which they said would significantly improve living conditions and costs for nearly two million people who reside in public housing units, while creating more than 240,000 new jobs.
It’s Green New Deal week!👷🏽♂️🌎 This week we’re highlighting: ✅ Green New Deal reintro tomorrow w/ new Congression… https://t.co/3kEllAc40y— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez)1618878563.0
Later on Monday, Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) announced they will reintroduce their landmark 2019 Green New Deal bill on Tuesday. In a Spanish-language statement previewing the bill's introduction, Ocasio-Cortez said the measure "aims to create a national mobilization over the next 10 years that fights against economic, social, racial crises, as well as the interconnected climatic conditions affecting our country."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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Offshore oil and gas drillers have discarded and abandoned more than 18,000 miles of pipelines on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico since the 1960s, a report from the Government Accountability Office says.
The industry has essentially recovered none of the pipelines laid in the Gulf in the last six decades; the abandoned infrastructure accounts for more than 97% of all of the decommissioned pipelines in the Gulf.
The pipelines pose a threat to the habitat around them, as maritime commerce and hurricanes and erosion can move sections of pipeline.
The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement does not conduct undersea inspections even though surface monitoring is "not always reliable for detecting ruptures," according to the GAO.
For a deeper dive:
The survey compared six environmental concerns: drinking water pollution; pollution in rivers, lakes and reservoirs; tropical rainforest loss; climate change; air pollution; and plant and animal species extinction. While most Americans showed concern for all of these threats, the majority were most worried about polluted drinking water (56 percent), followed by polluted rivers, lakes and reservoirs (53 percent), Gallup reported.
"When it comes to environmental problems, Americans remain most concerned about two that have immediate and personal potential effects," Gallup noted. "For the past 20 years, worries about water pollution – both drinking water and bodies of water — have ranked at the top of the list. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, laid bare the dangers of contaminated drinking water and no doubt sticks in the public's minds."
According to a new study, 61.4 million people in the U.S. did not drink their tap water as of 2018, Asher Rosinger, an assistant professor of biobehavioral health, anthropology and demography at Penn State, wrote in The Conversation.
"It's important not to blame people for distrusting what comes out of their tap, because those fears are rooted in history," Rosinger explained.
Meanwhile, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency surveys found that almost 50 percent of rivers and streams and more than one-third of lakes are polluted and unfit for swimming, fishing and drinking, the Natural Resources Defense Council reported. Without action, concerns over water quality will become increasingly relevant as the demand for fresh water is expected to be one-third greater by 2050 than it is today.
Gallup researchers have tracked environmental concerns among Americans since 2000, and water quality worries have consistently ranked high, Gallup noted.
The survey also revealed an environmental partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans. For example, 68 percent of Democrats were highly concerned about global warming compared to 14 percent of Republicans.
Another recent Gallup survey found that 82 percent of Democrats believed that global warming effects had already started compared to 29 percent of Republicans. "That's a gap of 53 points; for comparison, in 2001, the gap was a mere 13 points," Grist reported.
Similarly, a 2020 Pew Research Center report revealed the widest partisan gap to date concerning whether or not climate change should be a top policy priority. Protecting air and water quality ranked as the second most divisive issue among Republicans and Democrats, The New York Times reported.
"Intense partisan polarization over these two issues in particular" has been growing for decades, Riley Dunlap, a professor emeritus at Oklahoma State University, told The New York Times last February. "Voters take cues on their policy preferences and overall positions," he added. "President Trump has, in the past, called climate change a hoax and all that. You get a similar message from many members of Congress on the Republican side. And most importantly, it's the message you get from the conservative media."
Gallup's latest figures also showed that concern about environmental threats either increased or remained the same between 2019 and 2020.
"The fluctuations in worry levels since 2019 are largely driven by Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, who became more worried, on average, about the six environmental problems in 2020 during the presidential campaign and are now less worried with Joe Biden as president," Gallup reported.
While surveys like these are "not a full-blown diagnostic rundown of the nation's psyche," they are informative tools for understanding how and what Americans are feeling and thinking, Grist reported.
Climate Change Threatens Coffee – But We’ve Found a Wild Species That Could Help Save Your Morning Brew
By Aaron P Davis
The world loves coffee. More precisely, it loves arabica coffee. From the smell of its freshly ground beans through to the very last sip, arabica is a sensory delight.
Robusta, the other mainstream coffee crop species, is almost as widely traded as arabica, but it falls short on flavor. Robusta is mainly used for instant coffee and blends, while arabica is the preserve of discerning baristas and expensive espressos.
Consumers may be happy, but climate change is making coffee farmers bitter. Diseases and pests are becoming more common and severe as temperatures rise. The fungal infection known as coffee leaf rust has devastated plantations in Central and South America. And while robusta crops tend to be more resistant, they need plenty of rain – a tall order as droughts proliferate.
The future for coffee farming looks difficult, if not bleak. But one of the more promising solutions involves developing new, more resilient coffee crops. Not only will these new coffees have to tolerate higher temperatures and less predictable rainfall, they'll also have to continue satisfying consumer expectations for taste and smell.
Finding this perfect combination of traits in a new species seemed remote. But in newly published research, my colleagues and I have revealed a little-known wild coffee species that could be the best candidate yet.
Coffee Farming in a Warming World
Coffea stenophylla was first described as a new species from Sierra Leone in 1834. It was farmed across the wetter parts of upper west Africa until the early 20th century, when it was replaced by the newly discovered and more productive robusta, and largely forgotten by the coffee industry. It continued to grow wild in the humid forests of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, where it became threatened by deforestation.
At the end of 2018, we found stenophylla in Sierra Leone after searching for several years, but failed to find any trees in fruit until mid-2020, when a 10g sample was recovered for tasting.
Field botanists of the 19th century had long proclaimed the superior taste of stenophylla coffee, and also recorded its resistance to coffee leaf rust and drought. Those early tasters were often inexperienced though, and our expectations were low before the first tasting in the summer of 2020. That all changed once I'd sampled the first cup on a panel with five other coffee experts. Those first sips were revelatory: it was like expecting vinegar and getting champagne.
This initial tasting in London was followed by a thorough evaluation of the coffee's flavour in southern France, led by my research colleague Delpine Mieulet. Mieulet assembled 18 coffee connoisseurs for a blind taste test and they reported a complex profile for stenophylla coffee, with natural sweetness, medium-high acidity, fruitiness, and good body, as one would expect from high-quality arabica.
C. stenophylla growing in the wild, Ivory Coast. E. Couturon / IRD, Author provided
In fact, the coffee seemed very similar to arabica. At the London tasting, the Sierra Leone sample was compared to arabica from Rwanda. In the blind French tasting, most of the judges (81%) said stenophylla tasted like arabica, compared to 98% and 44% for the two arabica control samples, and 7% for a robusta sample.
The coffee tasting experts picked up on notes of peach, blackcurrant, mandarin, honey, light black tea, jasmine, chocolate, caramel and elderflower syrup. In essence, stenophylla coffee is delicious. And despite scoring highly for its similarity to arabica, the stenophylla coffee sample was identified as something entirely unique by 47% of the judges. That means there may be a new market niche for this rediscovered coffee to fill.
The taste testers approved of stenophylla's sweet and fruity flavour. CIRAD, Author provided
Breaking New Grounds
Until now, no other wild coffee species has come close to arabica for its superior taste. Scientifically, the results are compelling because we would simply not expect stenophylla to taste like arabica. These two species are not closely related, they originated on opposite sides of the African continent and the climates in which they grow are very different. They also look nothing alike: stenophylla has black fruit and more complex flowers while arabica cherries are red.
It was always assumed that high-quality coffee was the preserve of arabica – originally from the forests of Ethiopia and South Sudan – and particularly when grown at elevations above 1,500 metres, where the climate is cooler and the light is better.
Stenophylla coffee breaks these rules. Endemic to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, stenophylla grows in hot conditions at low elevations. Specifically it grows at a mean annual temperature of 24.9°C – 1.9°C higher than robusta, and up to 6.8°C higher than arabica. Stenophylla also appears more tolerant of droughts, potentially capable of growing with less rainfall than arabica.
Robusta coffee can grow in similar conditions to stenophylla, but the price paid to farmers is roughly half that of arabica. Stenophylla coffee makes it possible to grow a superior tasting coffee in much warmer climates. And while stenophylla trees tend to produce less fruit than arabica, they still yield enough to be commercially viable.
The stenophylla harvest on Reunion Island. IRD / CIRAD, Author provided
To breed the coffee crop plants of the future, we need species with great flavour and high heat tolerance. Crossbreeding stenophylla with arabica or robusta could make both more resilient to climate change, and even improve their taste, particularly in the latter.
With stenophylla's rediscovery, the future of coffee just got a little brighter.
Aaron P Davis: Senior Research Leader, Plant Resources, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Disclosure statement: Aaron P Davis receives funding from Darwin Initiative (UK).
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
On Thursday, April 22, the world will celebrate Earth Day, the largest non-religious holiday on the globe.
This Earth Day falls at a critical turning point. It is the second Earth Day since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and follows a year of devastating climate disasters, such as the wildfires that scorched California and the hurricanes that battered Central America. But the day's organizers still have hope, and they have chosen a theme to match.
"At the heart of Earth Day's 2021 theme, Restore Our Earth, is optimism, a critically needed sentiment in a world ravaged by both climate change and the pandemic," EarthDay.org president Kathleen Rogers told USA TODAY.
Last Earth Day marked the first time that the holiday was celebrated digitally to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This will largely be the case this year as well.
"Most of our Earth Day events will be virtual with the exception of individual and small group cleanups through our 'Great Global Cleanup' program," EarthDay.org's Olivia Altman told USA TODAY.
Tuesday, April 20: A Global Youth Summit begins at 2:30 p.m. ET featuring young climate activists like Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Villaseñor. This will be followed at 7 p.m. ET by "We Shall Breathe," a virtual summit organized by the Hip Hop Caucus to look at issues like the climate crisis, pollution and the pandemic through an environmental justice lens.
Wednesday, April 22: Beginning at 7 a.m. ET, Education International will lead the "Teach for the Planet: Global Education Summit." Talks will be offered in multiple languages and across multiple time zones to emphasize the importance of education in fighting the climate crisis.
Thursday, April 22: On the day itself, EarthDay.org will host its second ever Earth Day Live digital event beginning at 12 p.m. ET. This event will feature discussions, performances and workshops focusing on the day's theme of restoring our Earth through natural solutions, technological innovations and new ideas.
"EARTHDAY.ORG looks forward to contributing to the success of this historic climate summit and making active progress to Restore Our Earth," Rogers said in a press release. "We must see every country rapidly raise their ambition across all climate issues — and that must include climate education which would lead to a green jobs-ready workforce, a green consumer movement, and an educated and civically engaged citizenry around the world."
EarthDay.org grew out of the first Earth Day in 1970, which drew 20 million U.S. residents to call for greater environmental protections. The movement has been credited with helping to establish the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and to pass landmark environmental legislation like the Clean Air and Water Acts. It has since gone on to be a banner day for environmental action, such as the signing of the Paris agreement in 2016. More than one billion people in more than 192 countries celebrate Earth Day each year.
This legacy continues. The organization called the scheduling of Biden's summit a "clear acknowledgement of the power of Earth Day."
"This is a critical stepping stone for the U.S. to rejoin the world in combating the climate crisis. In concert with several planned parallel EARTHDAY.ORG events worldwide, Earth Day 2021 will accelerate global action on climate change," EarthDay.org wrote.