A team of researchers from Michigan State University is studying the state’s 465 documented bee species to understand why North America’s wild bee population is declining. In an article for Pacific Standard, Kelsey K. Graham who is taking part in the study, explains the difference between honey bees and wild bees and why this study is critical.
Honey bees, domesticated and highly managed, are not native to North America, however there are about 5,000 species of wild bees native to America. Although not all species show evidence of decline, some, such as the bumble bee, have seen a drastic decrease in population size. In 2017, the rusty patched bumble bee shrank by an estimated 91 percent, becoming the first bee in the lower 48 states to be listed as an endangered species. Concern over the shift in population stems from the crucial role wild bees especially play in maintaining healthy ecosystems. “Bees pollinate flowering trees and wildflowers, which in turn provide food and homes for other animals and improve water, air, and soil quality,” Graham writes. Put another way, one in every three bites of food we eat is made possible by bees, she explains.
Because native bees are so diverse, researchers have found it difficult to determine the primary cause for wild bee decline. However, Graham explains that the main culprits are likely poor nutrition and pesticide exposure, as well as the increased prevalence of pathogens and loss of nesting area due to agricultural intensification. “Providing safe nesting areas for native bees is therefore vitally important to their conservation,” she advocates. Her team is sampling bees across different landscapes and regions to identify areas with low bee abundance where conservation efforts could have the greatest impact.