Humans and honeybees go way back. We’ve been raiding their hives for honey for at least 10,000 years, and we domesticated them almost 5,000 years ago. Honey bees are the most commonly used pollinator for commercial crops in the United States. But there is another bee story; the decline of wild bees.
Ultimately, it may be the more alarming story. There are over 20,000 bee species in the world, and 43 percent of them are diminishing or endangered. Most wild bees are small and solitary, nesting in holes in the ground or wood. Solitary bees face different, less understood, challenges from pesticide exposure than their colony-dwelling honeybee cousins.
In a report published last week in Environmental Entomology, Utah State University graduate student Andi Kopi and Theresa Pitts-Singer, Ph.D., of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service make the case that we need to look beyond honeybees when assessing how pesticides affect pollinators. When it comes to pesticides, we typically only check their effects on honeybees before authorizing their use, even though solitary bees may interact with these chemicals in very different ways.
The factors affecting wild bee populations are the same as those responsible for the death of honeybee colonies. It’s not just one thing, but three factors intersecting that have caused the population to diminish. It’s this interaction between pesticides, poor nutrition, and diseases and parasites that is, in fact, bringing bees populations down.
Wild bees are ecologically critical. Worldwide, more than 1,000 plant-produced food, beverages, fibers, spices, and medicines need to be pollinated. Our pollinators have enough environmental stressors, curbing the use of bird and bee-killing pesticides should be a national priority.