Save the bees! But which ones?

75% of the worlds crops are dependent on pollination in some way or another. Despite the volume of pollinator-dependent crops increasing 300% in the last 40 years, there is growing concern about the decline in pollinators and the loss of pollination services they provide. This group consists of many species of vertebrates including butterflies and flies, yet attention in both research and media has been focused on the conservation of bees, in particular the western honey bee (Apis mellifera).

However, new research from the University of Cambridge suggests that managed honey bees can harm wild pollinator species having a detrimental effect on natural ecosystems around them.

Co-author Gonzalez-Varo says, “Honey bees are artificially-bred agricultural animals similar to livestock such as pigs and cows. Except this livestock can roam beyond any enclosures to disrupt local ecosystems through competition and disease.”  While crops only bloom for days or weeks at a time, honey bees roam for months venturing outside the croplands interacting with the surrounding natural ecosystem. Gonzalez-Varo’s past research has shown honey bee levels in Spanish woodlands to increase by 80% when orange tree crops finished blooming.

Introduced by Geslin and colleagues, ‘massively introduced managed species’, whether native or not, can disrupt the environment through sheer numbers. This ‘overspill’ means honey bees come into contact with other species, such as the solitary bumble bee, causing competition, spreading disease and taking vital pollen away the natural system back to agricultural environment. They not only cause competition with other bee species but can have adverse effects on non-pollinator species such as the Lear’s Macaw in Brazil which competes for nesting sites.

In an effort to distinguish between wildlife protection and increase crop production, authors Geldmann and Gonzalez-Varo argue that while honeybees provide pollination services these should not be considered ecosystem services as these services are provided by agricultural animals rather than the natural ecosystem. They suggest that honeybees should not be viewed as a way of conserving wildlife and where hives are implemented, impact assessments should consider this spill over effect.

While there is ample research on the decline of honeybees and the effect on crops, Geldmann and Gonzalez-Varo urge for there to be more research into the cause and effect of wild pollinator decline and the possible adverse effect on managed agricultural species. In order to have sufficient and effective pollination of the world’s crops without jeopardising biodiversity will require an ambitious and extensive research agenda.

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Abi Gardner

I'm a Ecosystem Services (MSc) student at The University of Edinburgh, with a background in Environmental Geography. I'm passionate about ecology, biogeography, environmental management, sustainability and climate change.

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