Why worry about native bees?

Recently, someone remarked, “Native bees don’t get colony collapse disorder, so it’s hard to believe they’re in trouble too.” Unfortunately, native bees are in trouble—and not just in the United States. Wild and native bees the world over are declining in numbers or disappearing completely.

While it is true that native bees are not experiencing colony collapse disorder, they suffer from many of the same problems that the more “glamorous” animals are experiencing. Chief among these are loss of habitat and habitat fragmentation. And when the habitat is lost, native food sources and nesting environments vanish as well.

Native bees are also subject to the pesticides. All types of pesticides have been found to harm bees, including fungicides, herbicides, acaricides, rodenticides, and of course the ubiquitous insecticides. Since native bees are closely tied to their food source, anything that destroys the food source—whether it’s a herbicide, a freeway, or a housing development—destroys the native insects that were dependent upon it.

A park here, a field there, and a garden down the road are not enough to maintain populations in the long term. Habitat fragmentation destroys the ability of populations to freely intermingle, and soon the genetic pool becomes small and lacks diversity. This is a major step on the road to local extinction. Add enough local extinctions together and a global extinction will follow.

Some entomologists have estimated that about 4000 species of bee are native to North America, but very few of these have been named or described. The view of many conservation biologists is that dozens are going extinct every year—even before we’ve been able to identify them.

Unfortunately—both for bees and for humans—the large “cute” animals have gotten all the conservation attention, and hence all the money. Polar bears, tigers, whales, elephants—things with a big presence—have received the bulk of the funds. Until recently, nobody paid much attention to the bees.

The one good thing about colony collapse disorder is that it has focused attention on honey bees and their extremely under-represented cousins, the wild and native bees that keep us supplied with fruits, vegetables, fibers, and beauty. With all the perils they face, it’s time we pay attention.