There are many more bee species than most people realise - more than 20,000 - and now, we know where to find them. This month, scientists made a giant leap toward protecting bees by mapping the diversity of one of nature’s most important pollinators for the first time.
Bee populations around the world are at risk due to human activities such as pesticide use and climate change. Understanding the distribution of bee species is critical to inform conservation and sustainable land management decisions. If we know which species depend on which ecosystem, we can better predict how they will react to shocks, such as changes in rainfall or farming techniques, and put in place measures to prevent their decline.
Pollinators are the foundation for human health and wellbeing. They sustain populations of wild plants that underpin ecosystem services, allow us to produce crops, ensure food security, and support cultural values. The majority of plants rely on pollination by animals and up to $577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from pollinator loss.
Bees do much more than make honey, and there are more bee species than there are mammals and birds combined. They visit more than 90% of the leading crop types and are the top pollinator group in many countries. The United States has the most species of bees, but there are areas in Africa and the Middle East, for example, that have high levels of undiscovered diversity.
Although awareness of the importance of bees has been on the rise in policy circles and the general public our response has not kept up with the threats that they face. In the US, honey bee populations declined by 60% between 1947-2008, while in Europe, 12 wild bee species are critically endangered.
Mapping bee hotspots
Using a comprehensive checklist of bee distribution and almost 6 million public bee records, an international team of researchers pioneered an insight into global patterns of bee diversity. Most plants and animals follow the same pattern, in which there is most biodiversity towards the tropics, and less towards the poles. Bees appear to be an exception to this rule. While there are fewer species towards the poles, there are also fewer near the equator. In areas where bees are less abundant, you see a rise in alternative pollinators such as wasps, cockroaches, or moths.
Many lower-income countries depend on wild, not domesticated, species of bees for their crops, and research on these is very sparse. When honeybees decline, beekeepers can order more. This is not the case for wild species. Food security for those most vulnerable, therefore, relies on studies such as these that highlight lesser-known species and allow us to safeguard biodiversity and the services that are so central to human prosperity.
Developing solutions for biodiversity