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THE RISKS AND DANGERS OF BEE EXTINCTION

by Gerardo Bandera


The blue skies and blooming flowers of spring also bring with them the buzzing of bees, which emerge from their hives in search of pollen. While small in size, their contributions to our ecosystems are momentous; put simply, life on Earth as it is today would not exist without bees.


Over millions of years, bees have evolved to help them pollinate flowers, even gaining little pollen pouches to carry larger loads; flowers have also evolved to attract bees and other pollinators and largely depend on them for reproduction.


Which is why their disappearance is worrying: over the past century, bee populations have plummeted, and some have even been labeled as endangered, leaving their ecosystems - and our food chains - at risk of collapse.



WHY ARE BEES ENDANGERED?

Bees are at risk of extinction largely due to human activities: large-scale changes in land use, industrialized agricultural practices and the detrimental use of pesticides have contributed to destroying their habitats and reducing their available food sources. Globalization has also facilitated the transmission of parasites and other invasive species that prey on bees, like the Asian hornet, which can decimate entire hives in hours.


Climate change also plays a large role in the endangerment of the bee population. Rising temperatures, increased flooding, droughts and changes in blooming seasons of flowering plants all affect the bees’ ecosystems, reducing their suitability to the environment and threatening their survival.


WHICH BEES ARE AT RISK OF EXTINCTION?

While most species of bees have seen wide-scale population loss over the past 300 years, and 40 percent of invertebrate pollinator species are facing extinction, eight species of bees have officially been declared as endangered.


Seven of the eight are species of the Hawaiian, yellow-faced bee, which are at risk due to the threat from non-native species of ants that feed on the eggs, as well as from habitat destruction.


The rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis) is also listed as an endangered species, and faces risk of extinction, most likely due to exposure to pesticides and habitat loss from urbanization. The population of the rusty patched bumblebee, which is endemic to North America, has decreased to only 0.1 percent of its historic levels.


Fortunately, not all bees are endangered, although all face serious population decline due to human activity and climate change.


WHY ARE BEES IMPORTANT?

Bees are one of the most efficient and prevalent pollinators. They have a mutualistic symbiotic relationship with flowers and other plants, meaning that both the plant and bee benefit from their interaction: the bees pollinate the plants, spreading the pollen (which they catch on their tiny hairs) from flower to flower, therefore helping the plants reproduce; in exchange, the bees also eat the pollen, which is a critical component of their diets. The evolution of many flowers has largely been tailored around increasing their attractiveness to bees, favoring flowers who are in the color spectrum that bees can see (ultraviolet rather than red-hued) and that release a strong, sweet smell when their pollen is ready to take.


However, bees pollinate more than just flowers - many of our favorite fruits and vegetables require the help of bees to pollinate them. From tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and eggplants to nuts, seeds and even cotton. It is estimated that about 80 percent of pollination of flowering plants uses the help of pollinators like bees to reproduce. Bees are critical for the stability of our food systems, supporting over 35 percent of global agricultural land - which is why their disappearance is worrying for humans.


WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF BEES WENT EXTINCT?

The ecological issue of the possible extinction of bees is also a humanitarian issue, as the stability of human populations largely depends on the stability of bee populations. Considering the crucial role of bees’ pollination activities in supporting our agricultural systems, their disappearance would likely result in a food crisis for humanity. Supplies of foods such as apples, berries, avocados, coffee and onions would fall drastically since they require the help of pollinators to reproduce. With plummeting supplies, the prices of these foods would skyrocket, making them rare and inaccessible to most people.


The decimation of these plants would have secondary effects on animals other than humans that also rely on them for food sources, resulting in larger biodiversity loss. In order to help us meet the food demand for the world’s rising human population, and achieve SDG 2, we must actively protect and foster the populations of bees and other pollinators.


HOW CAN WE HELP THE BEES?

Just as flowers and bees provide mutually beneficial exchanges, humans - all of whom benefit from bees’ pollinating activities - should help foster the health of bees.


Banning dangerous pesticides: The European Food Safety Committee (EFSA) has stated that three major pesticides pose a “high acute risk” to bee species and have been found in dangerous levels within their hives. Governments must ensure that approved pesticides are not harmful to pollinator populations, which in the long run will help increase crop yield and promote sustainable farming.


Prevent and reverse habitat loss: Without adequate environments for bees to build homes and have plentiful food sources, their populations will continue to decline. Preventing deforestation can therefore also prevent bee extinction and, as a side effect, promote higher crop yields.


Buy organic produce: Organic produce is grown without the use of pesticides and therefore does not have chemicals that can kill bees.


Plant flowers and plants that bees pollinate: If you have a garden, you can plant certain plants that attract bees and other pollinators. Avoid using fungicides or pesticides.


Buy local honey: Local honey producers support bee populations but need income to support their farms and themselves. Buying locally will help small-scale farmers survive, while also helping the biodiversity of plants and the bee communities in your area.


Do not kill bee hives: While many people are afraid of bees, it is important to understand that they are mostly harmless unless provoked. In fact, not all bees sting - some species do not possess stinging abilities, and male bees do not sting at all. Even female bees that do sting will only sting if directly threatened or attacked. If you don't feel comfortable with bees around, you can contact a local beekeeper association that will relocate the bees to a new home.


CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

On World Bee Day (20 May), we recognize the importance of these beautiful and small creatures, whose activities help preserve and perpetuate life on Earth. The decimation of their populations should remind us of the destabilizing nature of human activity on certain ecosystems, which is possible to prevent and correct. Our perspectives of our environments and our food chains must shift from focusing solely on the plants we eat to including the other organisms that support plants’ lives - and by extension, our lives as well.


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