The SFU Science Undergraduate Blog

The Diversity of Bees

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By Ranah Chavoshi

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Photo courtesy of Ranah Chavoshi

When we talk about bees we automatically think of Apis mellifera, otherwise known as the Honey Bee. Honey Bees are hard to miss. We often think of them pollinating our flowers and making our honey. Then, when we use bee products such as wax and commercial beauty products from brands such as Burt’s Bees we feel we fully understand our relationship with all bees. However, Honey Bees are far from being the only bees.

Simply by making the assumption that all bees are Honey Bees, we miss all the other bee species that are so essential to the healthy functioning of an ecosystem. There are approximately 25,000 different bee species worldwide. In British Columbia we boast 450 species [4]. These species range from native bumblebees (Bombus sp.) to solitary bees. Solitary bees are species that don’t belong to a colony like Mining Bees (Andrena sp.), Sweat Bees (Halictidae sp.), and Mason Bees (Osmia sp.). One of the species of bees found in British Columbia is the European Honey Bee, the well-known Apis Mellifera. The European Honey Bee is not actually a native pollinator! The European Honey Bee was initially introduced by European settlers in the early 1600s. By the mid-1600s, Honey Bee colonies were multiplying [5].

 

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Photo courtesy of Ranah Chavoshi

While these introduced Honey Bees do play an important role in our ecosystem, it is still important to acknowledge other bee species. All species play an integral role in keeping an ecosystem functioning by playing a specific role and using a specific resource. For bees this means that not every bee will pollinate every flower. Through evolution, bees have adapted the shapes of their bodies and the lengths of their tongues to pollinate specific flowers [1]. Different bees also have different nutritional needs as a result of these adaptations. To fulfill these needs different bees visit different flowers as different flowers hold different nutritional contents [9]. To build a well-functioning ecosystem, some bee species, such as the Honey Bee, have developed into generalist pollinators and pollinate a variety of flowers. In contrast, specialist bees only pollinate specific flowers. For example, the Blue Orchard Bee (Osmia lignaria) is a highly efficient pollinator of the flowers in the rose family and sweet cherries [2].

 

Biodiversity in ecosystems has a profound impact on humans. Take a moment and imagine a world without 33% percent of your favourite foods. That is a world without bees. One of three bites of food that we eat, came from a bee-pollinated plant [8]. Beyond agriculture, our world requires pollination. Our garden plants and our natural ecosystems all require pollination from bees. Without bees, our landscapes would be barren and dry.

Globally, native bee populations have been in decline. This is commonly associated with Colony Collapse Disorder which encompasses various factors such as urbanization and habitat fragmentation that have driven bees out of their natural habitats. The environmental shift caused by climate change has made it more difficult for bees to adapt to changes in their natural environments has been another important factor in the decline of global bee populations. The shift in global temperatures has allowed diseases and parasites to invade and take over bee populations. Lastly, the growing use of insecticides has had repercussions that have not been made clear to the public. All these factors are stressors causing the decline of bee populations [3,6].

Everyday actions can make or break conservation efforts for bees. The number one cause of the decline of global bee populations is habitat loss [3]. With continued deforestation, bees lose their natural habitats. Having a “bee-friendly” garden on your balcony or in your backyard can help to conserve bee populations. The plants in a “bee-friendly” garden should be flowers that naturally attract bees because of their colour and odour. To keep your garden safe for bees it is essential so that no pesticides are present. However, despite being a very important first step, avoiding the use of pesticides in your own garden isn’t enough. Recent studies have shown that approximately 50% of the plants that you purchase from commercial nurseries have neonicotinoid residue on them. Neonicotinoids are a relatively new class of insecticides that causes paralysis and death by affecting the central nervous system of insects [6].

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Photo courtesy of Ranah Chavoshi

To avoid the continued use of neonicotinoids simply ask the representatives at your local nursery about which plants have not been treated with any insecticides or pesticides before purchasing any new plants. On a global and national scale the use of neonicotinoids must be regulated if we are to continue using them. On July 1, 2015, the Ontario government became the first government in North America to restrict the use of seeds treated with neonicotinoid pesticides. Ontario has proposed reducing the use of neonicotinoids by 80 per cent by 2017 [7]. In British Columbia, we have a similar campaign that is being pushed through by the Wilderness Committee of British Columbia. There is even a petition on Change.org to ban neonicotinoids.

Unfortunately, if the bees go, we go with them. Despite their tiny size, bees make a big difference on our planet Earth. They pollinate the plants whose fruits we eat and whose vegetables we know we should. They even pollinate the plants whose beauty has overwhelmed us for millennia. Without a diverse bee population our biome would perish, our agricultural systems would likely be stressed to the point of failure, and ultimately, our global economy would crash. Clearly we need desperately bees, because humans are not good pollinators! However, there is hope. By increasing awareness of bee diversity we are taking the first steps to help conserve bee populations. Furthermore, by choosing to only buy untreated plants and by asking our local and provincial governments to ban insecticides like neonicotinoids we can begin to reverse the damage we have done to bee populations and keep our world full of sustenance and beauty.


 

References:

  1. Borrell, B. J. 2005. Long Tongues and Loose Niches: Evolution of Euglossine Bees and Their Nectar Flowers. Biotropica, 37: 664–669.
  2. Buchmann, Stephen. Identifying the bees on the poster. Join the Conversation about Native Bees. Pollinator Partnership.
  3. Death and Extinction of the Bees. Global Research. Web. 15 Aug. 2015
  4. Elle Lab. Simon Fraser University. Web. 15 August. 2015.
  5. History of the Honey Bee in Canada. Bees Matter. 15 August. 2015.
  6. Hopwood, Jennifer, et al. 2012. Are Neonicotinoids Killing Bees? A review of research into the effects of neonicotinoid insecticides on bees, with recommendations for action. Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
  7. Neonics. David Suzuki Organization. Web. 15 Aug. 2015.
  8. Pollinators. Pollinator.org. Web. 15 Aug. 2015.
  9. Waddington, K. D. & Holden, L. R. 1979. Optimal foraging: on flower selection by bees. American Naturalist. 179-196.

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