Halloween is a pretty scary time, but while clowns may be roaming the streets across the country, something much more terrifying occurred on October 31st this year – seven species of bees officially received the endangered status.
On September 30, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a final rule that would add seven species of yellow-faced bees in Hawaii to the list of endangered species. This is the first time in the U.S. that bees have been added to this list. Members of the Northwestern community have expressed gratitude that there has finally been recognition about the threats towards pollinators, but many are also fearful as to the implication of these recent additions.
According to the Environmental Conservation Online System, yellow-faced bees are important for the ecology of Hawaii, serving as native pollinators that make them beneficial to the environment and the humans in the state.
“A lot of the food that we eat, a lot of the flowers that we enjoy – both in gardens and in natural areas – need to be pollinated by bees,” said Stuart Wagenius, a conservation scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden and an adjunct assistant professor at Northwestern University.
Wagenius, who does research on native bees in prairies in Minnesota, says that bees are important for research for two reasons.
“One, the bees themselves are important. They provide this great pollination service which is so important for our food and other plants,” said Wagenius. “The other reason, which is not for the bees themselves, is that the bees may be serving as a canary in a [dangerous environment]. It’s hard to tell how safe our environment is, including the air we breathe and the water we drink.”
This recent case has been alarming for other reasons, especially for someone like Jeremie Fant, who serves on the board of the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board.
“Very few invertebrates make it on the [endangered species list]. It's unique that bees are on the list,” said Fant, who is also a conservation scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden and an adjunct assistant professor at Northwestern University. “It is also interesting that they did all seven [species] at once, rather than do each individual species.”
Fant mentioned that putting seven species on the endangered list at once shows the magnitude of this situation. While Fant agrees that there is serious concern in regards to the bees, he is also grateful that there has been a shift in awareness. Oftentimes, when there are stories about the decline in pollinators, they are focused on honeybees.
“A lot of the focus has been on honeybees,” said Fant. “We are now starting to get into other species of pollinators that are also threatened. This has allowed people to concentrate on the native bees.”
According to Global Research, 30 percent of the national bee population has disappeared in the last five years. Nearly a third of all the bee colonies in the US have also perished. This is especially of concern since there are other species that we may not know about, according to Rick Overson, a postdoctoral research associate at the Chicago Botanic Garden
“A lot of insects have gone extinct that we don't even know about,” said Overson. “That's the problem of putting insects on the endangered species list. There is so much variation in time and space, especially with insect populations." According to Overson, it is difficult to determine whether an insect is endangered, or if the population is simply temporarily declining.
There have been several reasons scientists have offered as to what caused this decline in bees around the country. According to some scientists, the loss is caused by the varroa mites, which kill bees and bring in viruses that weaken hives. Some have believed that it was due to Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon where many of the worker bees leave behind the queen in a hive.
Some, including Wagenius, believe it is due to pesticides, specifically, neonicotinoids, or neonics for short.
“Neonicotinoids are one of the most common types of pesticides used in the country right now,” said Wagenius. “They are used in agricultural fields and it's been shown that the dust coming off of fields in agricultural areas have disrupted honeybees and have surely affected native bees.”
In addition, the pesticides are present in some households as well.
“A lot of plants that people buy from home and garden stores or nurseries have been treated with neonics when they were seedlings,” said Wagenius. “If people buy a little plant, there are neonic pesticides in its cells. When the plant produces a flower, the pollen can have the neonics in it. People think they're helping the pollinators by planting plants that are good for pollinators, but in fact, they could be harming the pollinators.”
While there are many threats to bees and other pollinators, there have been efforts to help the bee population, both globally and on campus. For example, Northwestern plants are often chosen because they are good for pollinators.
“We pick plant species that will be good pollinators,” said Ann Ziegelmaier, Northwestern’s landscape architect. “It’s a balance of everything – with buildings and students – and being able to provide a good palette for bees and other animals in the area.”
Students can help the bees as well. According to Wagenius, students can buy and eat organic foods, plant neonics-free flowers and support nature preserves and other places where bees live.
While the addition of seven out 4,000 native bee species to the Endangered Species list may not seem significant, Wagenius believes otherwise.
“Bees are maybe the first sign of things going wrong,” said Wagenius. “If all these honeybees are dying, what's going on? That might have implications for not only other animals, but also for humans.”
Editor's note: The eleventh paragraph was altered to reflect Rick Overson's idea more accurately, and the photo was changed to that of a bee rather than a fly. NBN regrets these errors, and made the changes on Nov. 3 at 8:45 p.m.