Bees are on the decline. New research suggests that could have serious implications for global access to food.
Most of the world’s crops, including a third of the food humans eat every day, rely on pollination, mainly by bees. But due to habitat degradation, viruses, the widespread use of toxic pesticides, and climate breakdown, bees are dying globally at an alarming rate.
A new study, published in the Royal Society’s journal Biological Sciences on Tuesday, examined the impact of reduced bee populations on crop yields. The authors analysed data from more than 130 farms in U.S. and Canada that grow apples, blueberries, sweet cherries, tart cherries, almonds, pumpkins and watermelon.
They found that five of the seven crops showed evidence of lowered yields due to less pollination by smaller bee populations. Early spring crops, including apples, cherries, and blueberries, were hit hardest by this decreased pollination. Only pumpkins and watermelons – both late summer crops – fared okay, possibly because they grow in warmer and sunnier weather that’s more hospitable to bees. They also don’t have to compete with as many seasonal flowers for bees’ attention, which may improve success rates for pollination.
Much of the U.S. and Canada’s agriculture is supported by domesticated honeybees, which aren’t native to the region. But the researchers were surprised to find that native, wild bees played an equally important role, even though the farmland they examined had been largely stripped of the native plants on which those bee species rely.
“Even in these major production regions, for most crops, wild bees were doing similar amounts of crop pollination as that done by the honey bee,” Rachael Winfree, an ecologist at Rutgers University who was a senior author of the study, told Gizmodo in an email.