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Bees could be in trouble May 2, 2010

Posted by Kyle in Biology, Environment/Conservation, Policy.
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honey bee pollination

To many people bees of the family Apidae (including honey bees, Apis mellifera and bumblebees, genus Bombus) may seem like an annoying insect, but to flowers and other plants they are vital. Bees pollinate many crops that we rely on as a food source.  For this reason, bees are essential. Bees are obviously important in the wild, but they are also used commercially in greenhouses.  Scientists have noticed, however, that these important creatures have been on the decline. This could potentially be devastating to the crops that rely on bees for pollination as well as populations that rely on those crops for food.

Researchers Michael Otterstatter and James Thomson of the University of Toronto believe that the decline in bee populations could be a result of a pathogen spreading from commercial populations to wild ones. Commercial bees are often infected with the pathogen Crithidia bombi. To test this hypothesis, researchers tested populations near greenhouses as well as populations not near greenhouses to determine the percentage of infected individuals. As was expected, wild populations of bees closer to greenhouses had higher infection rates than those that were not near greenhouses. This points to commercial populations of bees as the source of the infection. As the commercial bees escape and mingle with wild bees, they are spreading the pathogen that is causing declining bee numbers.

While this problem may not be so bad now, over time there could be serious consequences. The declining bee numbers could have a negative impact on crops, potentially leading to a shortage in the food supply. As researchers in Europe have discovered, a decline in bee diversity is also making it harder for wild bee populations to survive. As a result, bees have not only started to disappear, but plants have as well. A study found that in 80 percent of bee populations biodiversity had declined.  As biodiversity declines, so do the chances that populations would survive widespread infection. At least in this study, it is unclear what is causing the declines in both bees and plants, or if they are related. These two studies highlight the importance of regulating commercial operations where biodiversity can be influenced. By better managing the diseases found in commercial bees as well as species overlap with wild populations, the issue could be curtailed.

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