The Buzz around Bumblebees

Temperatures are rising and so are the oceans. Fires are decimating forests and lakes are drying up. The intensity, as well as frequency, of droughts and hurricanes is predicted to escalate. And as if this weren’t enough, the climate crisis is claiming the lives of the world’s most efficient pollinators – bumblebees.

Research from the University of Ottawa, which focused on 66 bumblebee species across North America and Europe, revealed that extreme temperatures and changes in precipitation are risking their survival. One is half as likely to spot a bumblebee in places where they were once a ubiquitous sight – and this has happened within one human generation.

“We measured change in these bees a few different ways, and each one painted the same sad picture – bumblebees are vanishing very quickly in a very short time. In 25 years, the likelihood of finding a bee species declined on average by 46% in North America and 17% in Europe,” tweeted Peter Soroye, a Ph.D. student at the University of Ottawa and one of the authors of the study.

Photo Credit Irina Iriser

Their disappearance from the aforementioned, or any, region points to two possibilities – they have either migrated to colder climates or have died. The study suggests that there are limits to their adaptability, which restricts their chances of expanding to new territories.  Bumblebees, the study notes, are not able to colonize new regions at the same rate at which they are disappearing from their current habitat. Furthermore, the impact of rising temperatures on vegetation and flowers may lead to the bumblebees starving, and eventually, dying.

This decline in their numbers is bound to have cascading ecological repercussions. Bumblebees are unique in the work that they do given their signature buzz, which helps pollinate crops like tomatoes and blueberries, which keep their pollen tucked away. A decrease in their numbers will make it harder, if not near impossible, for many flowering plants to reproduce and this will in-turn affect the myriad other organisms that rely on these plants.

However, climate change alone isn’t responsible for their dwindling numbers. Bumblebees are equally threatened by the excessive and indiscriminate use of pesticides like neonicotinoids, loss of habitat, the spread of pathogens as well as the release of non-native bees for commercial pollination. All of this combined could bring their population over the tipping point.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

  • Plant trees and shrubs in urban environments. This could give bumblebees shelter from the warmer temperatures around built spaces.

  • Fill your garden with native plants that bees can visit

  • Leave fallen logs or leaf piles on the ground to create shelter for bumblebees during extreme heat waves.

  • Bumblebee queens are born in the fall and after breeding, they find a place to hibernate for the winter. They need spring-blooming flowers, shrubs and trees as nectar and pollen sources to start their colonies.

  • Go easy on the pesticides or opt for “companion planting”. Include plants that naturally repel pests – garlic for aphids or basil for tomatoes are good strategies to adopt when trying to control pesticide use.

  • Several countries now have volunteer organizations that support pollinators and their habitats. Look up the one closest to you and get involved.

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