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The Early Birds Might Be Crowding Out the Bees

As humans expand, nesting space contracts—and competition heats up

Nesting space is at a premium as humans tear down natural habitats. (Hectonichus/Wikimedia CC)
smithsonian.com

What’s going on with bees? The question has vexed scientists for years as bee populations decline, and decline, and decline. In an attempt to save the buzzing insects, humans have tried building everything from bee highways to hotels. But it turns out that we may have missed a major threat to the yellow-and-black bugs: birds.

As the BBC’s Helen Briggs reports, birds and bees compete for precious habitat. And timing is everything. A new study published in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology suggests that bird nest building during early Spring could make it harder for species that breed later in the year—like bees—to find a place to live.

Animal behaviorist Andrew Exeter looked at population data for about 43 bee species and 221 bird species across the globe. And he realized that habitat competition in places already affected by human development affects those who are late to the party much more negatively than those who stake out their claim early on. Since birds and bees nest in the same kinds of human-endangered places, like wild shrubs, rough pastures and forests, the early bird seems to truly get the worm.

Exeter’s model demonstrates that the competition sparked by that disappearing habitat is disproportionately affecting bumblebees. His study suggests that it could be more important to focus less on bee food and more on places for bees to live.

“To save rare species we need more focus on making sure that they have enough places to nest,” says Exeter in a press release. He suggests that the more quickly nesting sites are depleted, the more late-nesting species will suffer. And bees aren’t the only ones—bird species like tree sparrows, which nest on the ground and breed during the summer, are also at risk.

Want to help out the late bloomers of the world? Consider planting native shrubs, which give birds and bees ground cover. But as long as wild habitats continue to be diminished by humanity, nature’s pollinators could continue to suffer. It’s a sobering reminder that human development has consequences—and given the importance of bees to agriculture and the ecosystem around us, it’s a problem well worth solving.

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