Metro

What would happen if bees disappeared?

Volunteer Ben Merritt, a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati, checks honeybee hives for queen activity and performs routine maintenance as part of a collaboration between the Cincinnati Zoo and TwoHoneys Bee Co., in Mason, Ohio in 2015.
AP Photo/John Minchillo, File
Volunteer Ben Merritt, a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati, checks honeybee hives for queen activity and performs routine maintenance as part of a collaboration between the Cincinnati Zoo and TwoHoneys Bee Co., in Mason, Ohio in 2015.

The populations of honeybees and other key pollinators have been on the decline, and scientists are trying to figure out why. Last week, a large field study in Europe concluded that a common and much-criticized pesticide dramatically weakens already vulnerable honeybee hives. Metro Minute asked bee expert Robert J. Gegear, assistant professor of biology and biotechnology at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, why bees are so important.

Q. What would happen if bees were to disappear?

A. It depends on the context and the type of bee. In an agricultural context, the loss of managed pollinators, such as the honeybee, would have major social consequences (less food on our tables) and economic consequences (less money for agribusiness), assuming that native bees, like bumblebees, and other flower-visiting insects in the wild cannot fill the crop pollination gap.

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Q. Much of the research has focused on honeybees, but you have said that the decline of bumblebees may have a greater impact. Why is that?

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A. In an ecological context, native bees, including bumblebees, are keystone species, meaning the pollination service that they provide to native flowering plants has a positive cascading effect on wildlife diversity. Extinction of all native bees in the wild would lead to ecosystem collapse and dramatic reductions in biodiversity around the globe. Healthy ecosystems provide us with a number of free services (e.g., water purification and decomposition), which would also be eliminated if we had significantly reduced native pollinator diversity. Despite their tremendous importance in an agricultral context, the removal of the honeybee, a single non-native bee species (imported by European settlers), would have minimal ecological impact.

Q. Are there any bee populations that are in good shape?

A. Yes, there is a widespread misconception that all bees are in decline. In the case of bumblebees, some species are close to extinction while others have increased in abundance. Our research is trying to determine why this is the case. Unfortunately, we don’t have information on the status of the 4,000 other bee species native to North America, but I would guess that most groups are showing similar patterns.

Q. You have created an app that tracks bee-plant interactions. How does it work?

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A. Once citizen scientists take or import a short video/picture of a bee visiting a flower, the app records details of the interaction (species involved, date, time, GPS coordinates, etc.) and then sends it to our central database where it can be analyzed in different ways. The app allows us to crowdsource large amounts of ecological data over a short period, greatly accelerating our efforts to identify the cause of bumblebee decline, and to figure out what we need to do to bring them back.

Q. How many times have you been stung?

A. Not as much as you would think — around 20-30 times over the last 20-plus years.

Roy Greene can be reached at roy.greene@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @roygreene.