Albion Monitor /News

Huge Decline in Bees Worry Biologists

The relationships between bees and particular plants is not well understood

The recent sharp decline in honey bee populations could have dire consequences for many food crops, according to an article in the current issue of The Sciences magazine.

"A pollination crisis is flaring," write authors Stephen Buchman and Gary Nabhan. "It threatens rare, endangered plants as well as the common ones that keep people clothed and fed... At risk is every plant crop that depends on pollination for reproduction: one in three mouthfuls of the food people eat."

The decline of a single species, even one as important as the honey bee, would not usually have such far- reaching effects, but with the crisis in biodiversity, the loss of even one keystone species can bring down several others.

In the past many different animals pollinated plants, including mosquitos, butterflies, flying foxes, bats, and more than 40,000 native species of bees. As more and more development projects disrupted native habitats, specialized pollinators were driven to extinction. The honey bee filled in for a time, pollinating a wide range of plant species, but now even the honey bee is at risk. The combination of killer bees and tracheal mites is ravaging feral honey bee populations, destroying up to 85 percent of hives in some parts of the country.

Another problem is that the relationships between bees and particular plants is not well understood. "In one region of the U.S. the pollinators are known for only one of every fifteen endangered plants," Buchman and Nabhan warn. "Without such knowledge, of course, a plant's primary means of propagation could disappear before anyone could lift a finger to preserve it."

While it remains difficult to measure how much lost pollinators cost an economy, one Canadian study put the price at $1.25 billion annually, estimating that seven of the sixty agricultural crops critical to the North American economy would be lost if the wild insects that pollinate them became extinct.

"Pollinators are the unseen engines driving an ecosystem," say Buchman and Nabhan. "They couple plant to plant and plant to animal, spinning the verdant world through endless cycles and feedback loops, providing fuel and fuses and safety valves."

Wild pollinators are often more vulnerable to pesticides

Nabhan is also Director of Science for the Forgotten Pollinators Campaign, a recently launched effort to educate the public about pollinators' critical economic and agricultural importance.

According to a February report issued by Pesticide Action Network (PANUPS) about the Campaign, pesticide use, disease, habitat fragmentation, and the arrival of Africanized bees in North America have dramatically reduced honey bee populations in the U.S., by as much as 25 percent since 1990.

The Campaign says that already the impact this decline can be seen as entire crops are at risk, forcing growers to the extreme step of importing new bees. California almond industry has begun borrowing bee hives from other states to compensate for pollinator scarcity, and the 1995 New York pumpkin crop suffered from the scarcity of native bees.

Wild pollinators are often more vulnerable to pesticides than domestic honey bees, and the Campaign calls for more stringent controls of toxic chemical applications near their nesting and foraging sites and for better training of pesticide applicators in monitoring for pollinators.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor July 28, 1996 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page