Bees are vital pollinators. As such, they help produce our food and the food of many wild animals. Without them, food production would likely fall, and natural ecosystems would be altered, having unforeseen and potentially deadly consequences for humanity.
What do bees do?
There are around 20,000 species of bees across the world. They live in a wide range of habitats, from rainforests to the Savannah, to urban and agricultural landscapes.
Often we focus mainly on the honey bee species; however, these make up only a tiny percent of the bees present across the world today. Bees vary widely in how they live their lives. Only a small number are social bees living in hives and colonies, including honey bees and bumblebees. Many bees are solitary and do not produce honey.
However, almost all bees use pollen and nectar as their primary food source. They gather these foods by travelling from flower to flower, feeding on or collecting these valuable resources. This feeding method, and the fact that the bodies of bees are covered in hairs, make them such valuable pollinators.
A pollinator is an animal that moves pollen from one flower to another, facilitating pollination. This certainly isn’t something these animals choose to do but instead is a byproduct of their search for food.
Not just bees are pollinators; other important pollinators include beetles, birds, mammals, reptiles, butterflies, wasps and even ants. Many species of plant are designed to be pollinator by a particular type of animal, such as figs adapted to be pollinated by one species of wasp.
Many bee species are generalists and will feed on almost any flower they come across, but others are specific to certain blooms, meaning they can only live where those flowers are found. This close relationship can be beneficial for the flower as cross-pollination has a higher chance of occurring.
Beyond natural pollination, certain species of bees have long been used by humans as domestic species, either to produce honey and wax or for the pollination of commercial crops. Honey has been an essential resource for humans and has been used in food and medicines for thousands of years.
Also read: Is Beekeeping Cruel? Does it Harm Bees?
How will bee extinction affect humans?
Bees have recently been put centre stage in the fight for environmental justice. Research has shown that bee numbers are declining, both in wild and domesticated populations. These declines are linked to destruction of natural habits, the overuse of pesticides and the effects of climate change.
Within domestic bees, the rise in occurrences of Varroa mites and the spread of a phenomenon called rapid colony collapse have seen many hives destroyed. In addition, the use of neonicotinoids, a pesticide that causes bees to become disoriented and unable to find their way back to their hives, is also thought to have had a significant effect.
Many scientists believe that the rise in diseases within bee species is a symptom of the general poor health of the bees’ environment and the increase in stressors, such as those related to climate change.
Many problems may not seem significant on their own, such as the loss of gardens within urban areas, but they add up to a considerable impact. Paving over green spaces and the constant mowing of lawns are other ways essential food sources are lost to bees.
Many species of bees are already endangered or have gone extinct, but scientists fear that if we lose bees altogether, it won’t be long before humanity is also extinct.
While this message has been simplified and dramatised by the media, it is certainly not a concept to be taken lightly. For example, it’s estimated around 35% of our 100 most important crops are pollinated by animals such as bees. This would mean a dramatic loss in food production if bees were to go extinct. Additionally, many of our wild plants would suffer, with bees being important pollinators for them as well.
However, it is worth remembering that bees aren’t our only pollinators. If bees did die out, other pollinators would likely take over to a certain extent and perhaps thrive within the gap that bees have left. As with all effects on our ecosystem, it is impossible to know how the system as a whole will react when one part is removed. Complete collapse is unlikely, but a monumental shift would likely occur, one which would have many unforeseen consequences.
Despite the attractive drama of stating that the loss of bees would result in the loss of humanity, the truth is this is not something we can accurately predict. However, we can be reasonably confident that the failure of the bee population would result in, at the very least, a short-term drop in food production.
Yet, with a large and growing population, even a short-term reduction could result in large scale famines and have serious consequences, particularly for the most impoverished communities.
Many ecosystems would likely bounce back in time from the loss of bees, as ecosystems often do when a species is lost. However they may not be as diverse or stable as before. Additionally, we have many historical examples that demonstrate that species and habitats often have a breaking point, before which pieces can be chipped away without much impact. Then, finally, the whole system collapses that our feet.
In general, we do not have the knowledge to know when this breaking point will be reached, meaning with every blow we land on our environment, we cannot be sure if it will be the last.
What bees are endangered?
Many bee species are endangered across the world. This is often because these species have particular habitat requirements, for example, feeding on only one type of flower that grows in specific conditions. Therefore as humanity has destroyed more natural environments, usually for agriculture production or the creation of urban developments, we have pushed more and more species to the edge of extinction.
The Great Yellow Bumblebee
There’s undoubtedly something about the name, the great yellow bumblebee, that makes it sound impressive. This species was once found across the UK, feeding on red clover and vetches. However, as farming intensified and flower-rich meadows disappeared, this bumblebee also vanished. Today it is restricted to the most northern reaches of Scotland, where it lives on the machair and other valuable areas of wildflowers.
Today conservation efforts are at work to bring back this rare bee from the brink.
Hawaiian yellow-faced bees
Hawaiian yellow-faced bees are solitary bee species that look rather more like wasps than bees. Living exclusively on the Hawaiian islands, these bees nest in the ground or within bark. Their decline has been linked to the loss of native Hawaiian flora through development, the introduction of non-native species and the destruction of natural habitats.
The rusty-patched bumblebee once had a wide range across North-eastern America, to the Appalachian mountains; however, today, it is endangered, only found in a few small patches. Its wonderful yellow thorax and the top half of the abdomen are interrupted by a rust coloured patch, as the name suggests. Unusually the queen is missing this name-giving mark.
The loss of the wild prairies and grasslands of this region has led to the rapid decline of this species. Those who remain are fragmented and isolated, making it hard for the bumblebee to move between them.
What species are extinct?
Bee numbers have dropped dramatically within the last few decades; however, many species are still under-recorded. This can be because of the lack of skilled people to record them, a lack of interest in less attractive or commercially important species, or difficulty surveying them. Additionally, species are not registered as extinct until they have not been observed for over 50 years.
This means that sometimes we can be unaware of a species being extinct because no one has been looking for it, or we can believe them to be extinct, and they have not yet been recorded as such. This means very few bee species have been officially recorded as extinct in recent years.
Sometimes this lack of data works the other way, and a species has been recorded as extinct when it is simply a case of no one being able to find them. A recent example of this has been Wallace’s giant bee, which was rediscovered after not having been seen since 1981. Given that we can lose the world’s largest bee, four times larger than a honey bee, for several decades, imagine how many other species are hiding in plain sight?
So are bees important?
Bees are incredibly important, and no sane person can argue otherwise. However, we also need to accept that we cannot divide the world into species it’s OK to lose and those it’s not. In reality, ecosystems are complex and tangle lattices. We may feel safe trimming away at them here and there, but each time we do, we make the whole structure a little weaker. We need to accept that all losses are important, and all species have an equal right to thrive.
To really and truly reverse our pattern of destruction, we need to make significant changes, and in many cases, uncomfortable sacrifices. But the truth is we need our environment and the species within it a great deal more than any of them need us. So it’s time to stop acting as if we are the only thing that matters and start putting up a fight for the other species on this planet.