Image credit: Rob Hooft, used under Creative Commons license.
With angst around colony collapse disorder and the plight of the honeybees causing some to explore the idea of "human bee pollinators" (seriously, many farmers in China do now pollinate fruit trees by hand due to lack of bees), it might be a comforting thought that there are also other pollinators out there who can pick up the slack for the disappearing bees. Unfortunately, many of them are seeing a massive decline too. It should be noted, first of all, that there are very few native pollinators that could match up to the industrial-scale pollination efforts of the honeybee—but that might just be one more reason why vast monocultures of almond trees, or anything else, cannot be a long-term proposition.
Leaving that question aside for a while, even a cursory understanding of natural systems would suggest that protecting a wide diversity of pollinators—from honeybees to bumblebees to butterflies, hummingbirds and wasps—would be a smart move. Unfortunately, just as our domesticated honeybees are facing a major population drop off, so too are many other pollinator species.
Over at The Guardian, Alok Jha writes that 4 common species of bumblebee in the US have seen declines in population of as much as 96% in the last few decades:
"By comparing her results with those in museum records of bee populations, she showed that the relative abundance of four of the sampled species (Bombus occidentalis, B. pensylvanicus, B. affinis and B. terricola) had declined by up to 96% and that their geographic ranges had contracted by 23% to 87%, some within just the past two decades.
Cameron's findings reflect similar studies across the world. According to the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in the UK, three of the 25 British species of bumblebee are already extinct and half of the remainder have shown serious declines, often up to 70%, since around the 1970s. Last year, scientists inaugurated a £10m programme, called the Insect Pollinators Initiative, to look at the reasons behind the devastation in the insect population."
The declines are attributed by researchers to a combination of factors including disease, low genetic diversity in bee populations, habitat loss and change, and the use of pesticides. While few of us are likely to start bumblebee breeding programs to boost genetic diversity, we might do well to plant pollinator-friendly gardens, support sustainable agricultural practices, and encourage the world to move from conservation into habitat restoration and earth repair as we enter 2011.
More on Pollinators, Conservation and Restoration
Rare Bumblebee Species Discovered in Scotland After 50 Years
Honeybees May Be Responsible for Viruses in Wild Pollinators
Plant Pollinators Love
Extinct Bumblebee Reintroduced from NZ Stock