Vanishing bees? There's an app for that
As wild bee populations in the US collapse, with big implications for agriculture, new software might just save the day. Andrew Masterson reports.
Declines in wild bee populations in the US are putting at least $3 billion worth of crops at risk, a new study has shown – but help may be at hand in the form of an app.
In February, Taylor Ricketts, a conservation ecologist at the University of Vermont, unveiled the first ever study to map the density and distribution of America’s estimated 4,000 wild bee species. The results showed an increasing mismatch between pollinators and land use.
Ricketts has been compiling his bee map since 2015, tracking changes to species abundance. The latest data, presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), found the steepest declines in bee populations are occurring in key agricultural areas stretching from California to the Pacific Northwest and the Mississippi River valley.
This is especially troubling because the areas most impacted are those used for growing speciality crops, including almonds and apples, that are heavily dependent on pollinators.
The decreasing numbers of wild bees are further exacerbating an already serious shortfall in farmed bees, as commercial apiarists endure continuing colony losses.
Pesticides, climate change and diseases have all been implicated in the bee crisis, but the AAAS meeting was told that another likely key driver is loss of habitat.
"When sufficient habitat exists, wild bees are already contributing the majority of pollination for some crops," said Insu Koh, postdoctoral researcher also at Vermont uni.
"And even around managed pollinators, wild bees complement pollination in ways that can increase crop yields."
Having identified the problem, Rickets and Koh have also come up with a potential solution. The pair have developed an app, to be launched later this year, that will enable farmers to model how land management decisions will impact bee populations.
The app uses the bee map to allow land holders to introduce “bee-friendly” strategies, such as constructing windbreaks and introducing flowers that are attractive to wild species.
"The good news about bees," says Ricketts, "is now that we know where to focus conservation efforts, paired with all we know about what bees need, habitat-wise, there is hope for preserving wild bees."