Climate change puts bumblebees, and possibly our food, at risk

Bumblebees can be found in less and less areas of North America and Europe. The cause, once again, is climate change and effects are not just environmental – the decline may also cause increased prices and diminished varieties for food.

Bumblebees are disappearing from many areas due to climate change (credit: PA)

Bumblebees are disappearing from many areas due to climate change (credit: PA)

In the largest study of this type yet, researchers examined 420,000 records of many species of bumblebees and reported that they are in decline on a continental scale due to climate change. The results were published last week in the journal Science.

The decline of bumblebees is bad news on several levels. “Bumblebees pollinate many plants that provide food for humans and wildlife,” says co-author of the study Leif Richardson, at the University of Vermont. “If we don’t stop the decline in the abundance of bumblebees, we may well face higher food prices, diminished varieties, and other troubles.” In fact, “Pollinators are vital for food security and our economy, and widespread losses of pollinators due to climate change will diminish both,” adds leading author Jeremy Kerr, at the University of Ottawa.

The study shows that climate change is the true culprit rather than pesticides and land use – which are major threats as well, though. The bumblebees are shifting to areas of habitat at higher elevation in response to climate change and, as Richardson states: “Moving upslope doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve lost area there yet, eventually, they may simply run out of hill.”

The study looked at over 110 years of records and showed that bumblebees have lost about 300 km of land from the southern edge of their range in Europe and North America. “The scale and pace of these losses are unprecedented,” said Kerr. The reason bumblebees are suffering the change in temperature more than other insects could be linked to the fact that, unlike other insects which originated and diversified in tropical climates, bumblebees have unusual evolutionary origins in the cool Palearctic.

The research team proposes to address the issue with a dramatic solution – to move bee populations into new areas where they might persist. While this “assisted migration” proposal is now gaining support, it is still very controversial among conservation biology circles. “We need new strategies to help these species cope with the effects of human-caused climate change, perhaps assisting them to shift into northern areas,” said Kerr.

Perhaps, again, the most important message of this study is “the need to halt or reverse climate warming,” says Leif Richardson. “These findings could spell trouble for many plants – including some crops, like blueberries – that depend on bumblebees for pollination. Bumblebees are crucial to our natural ecosystems.”

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Carlo Bradac

Carlo Bradac

Dr Carlo Bradac is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He studied physics and engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan (Italy) where he achieved his Bachelor of Science (2004) and Master of Science (2006) in Engineering for Physics and Mathematics. During his employment experience, he worked as Application Engineer and Process Automation & Control Engineer. In 2012 he completed his PhD in Physics at Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia). He worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sydney University and Macquarie University, before moving to UTS upon receiving the Chancellor Postdoctoral Research and DECRA Fellowships.

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