How Climate Change is Messing with Bees

New and ongoing research points to issues with bee ranges and the early emergence of flowers

Wild Science: Bees and climate change

Bees are vitally important to the health of the planet: The more than 30,000 bee species around the world are the most important group of pollinators for farming and wild plants. But populations are declining due to a variety of factors including human development, pesticides, disease and a changing climate, reports Clayton Aldern for Grist

Figuring out exactly how something so huge as climate change effects bee populations is tricky, but possible. To get the details on why and how this is happening, researchers go out into the field and mess with individual flower patches.

A video produced by Dakin Henderson for High Country News ​(above) gives insight into this work.

Rebecca Irwin, an associate professor at Dartmouth College conducts her work at at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado. There, she investigates the effects of changes in phenology — or the timing of when something occurs. "When the snow melts earlier, the flowers are going to emerge earlier and they’re going to bloom earlier," she says in the video. "We don’t really understand if the bees are going to follow suit." 

If the flowers are available, but no bees are around to pollinate them, that phenology mismatch might be a problem. To test this, Irwin and her team goes out into the field early in the year and shovels the snow away from patches of mountain meadows. That creates a patch where spring comes artificially early: the snow is gone and flowers bloom. The experimental results are yet to be published, but the fact that climate change is affecting the relationship between bees and the plants they pollinate is well on its way to being established.

For Grist, Aldern mentions a recent study in Science that shows bee populations are having trouble moving their ranges to cooler or higher regions to follow temperature shifts. For Nature, Daniel Cressey reports:

As temperatures rise, the southern limits of many North American and European bumblebee species’ ranges are moving north — by as much as 300 kilometers in some cases, researchers report today (9 July) in Science. But the northern edges of the bees’ ranges are staying in place, leading to an overall contraction of the insects’ habitat.

That would spell trouble for the many crops and other plants bees pollinate — a task accomplished not only by commercial hives.

"If we had to try and do what bees do on a daily basis, if we had to come out here and hand pollinate all of our native plants and our agricultural plants, there is physically no way we could do it," Irwin says in the HCN video. " Our best bet is to conserve our native bees."

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