The wild bee population is dwindling, putting US crops at risk, researchers have recently warned.
The study appeared on Monday, December 21, in the journal Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences. It was conducted by a team of experts led by Insu Koh, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics.
Back in 2014 beekeepers announced that around 40% of all the honey bee colonies had been compromised, and scientists determined that the Monarch butterfly population had also dwindled by as much as 90% in the last 2 decades.
Given the importance of such insects when it comes to transferring pollen so as to assist seed production, in May 2014 the Obama administration assembled the Pollinator Health Task Force, meant to identify areas suffering pollinator decline.
Keeping track of such losses was considered essential in order to make sure that habitats are more carefully preserved, and conservation efforts yield the desired results.
Now, this new study is the first ever since the president’s memorandum to analyze native bee population trends across 4,000 species, and bring to light issues that need to be addressed immediately.
Apparently, the number of wild bees had decreased by as much as 23% across the United States in just 5 years (between 2008 and 2013), as their grasslands were transformed into cultivated land, so as to ensure larger production of corn-based ethanol, the most popular biofuel throughout the nation.
Other factors that have contributed to this worrisome slump have been the use of pesticides, as well as numerous infectious diseases transmitted by honeybees and bumblebees (like mite infestations triggered by the Varroa destructor parasite).
According to researchers, the areas where wild bees have suffered the most alarming decline stretch across 139 counties, which account for 39% of the U.S. cropland relying on pollinators.
As shown in a map illustrating the gap between supply and demand, some of the regions considered the most problematic are west Texas, the Pacific Northwest, the southern Mississippi valley sector, the upper Midwest, California’s Central Valley and the Upper Great Plains.
Here, the native bee population has experienced a downturn, while the extent of crops whose survival revolves around pollination has been escalating.
More precisely, farmers in these counties have been planting more almond trees, and growing more and more fruit such as watermelons, apples, pears, squashes, cherries, tomatoes, peaches and blueberries.
In addition, ever-expanding rows of soybeans, canola, sunflowers and cotton have emerged, which may require less pollination, but due to their vast surface even they put extra pressure on bees and other essential pollinators.
According to Taylor Ricketts, director at the Good Institute for Ecological Economics, as native bees become less and less numerous, this will lead to additional costs in agriculture, so as to ensure adequate seed dispersal even in their absence.
At the moment, wild bees help generate revenues of up to $3 billion on a yearly basis, and therefore their loss would result in a significant gap in the U.S. economy.
Also, the disappearance of native bees would put extra pressure on domesticated honeybees, but even they have suffered a decline in recent years,
Therefore, eventually, entire crops could be lost, and consumers would no longer have access to produce that they have come to rely on.
As a result, researchers such as Rufus Isaacs, director of the Integrated Crop Pollination Project, urge regulators to enforce sustainable agriculture measures and speed up their efforts to protect wild bee habitats, before these beneficial insects whose survival is essential to the economy are driven to extinction.
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