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Study Points to Multiple Causes of Bee Population Collapse

In a world of competing theories, sometimes more than one is right.

Photo by Charlesjsharp via Wikimedia Commons

Bees are disappearing all over the place. For years, scientists and apiarists have sought the cause of mass bee die-offs in the United States and Europe. And while many won’t miss the occasional uncomfortable sting from the little buzzers, they certainly will miss the $16 billion in American crops those bees pollinate every year. A number of supportable theories to explain the bee slump have been put forth—parasites, disease, loss of habitat to encroaching urbanization—but proving a single cause of the situation has remained elusive. Now, a new paper, published last month in Science, might tell us why.

According to Vox, the paper studied the individual, competing ideas behind the population collapse, concluding that direct causes were hard to pinpoint because each of the prevailing theories was, to some extent, right. By failing to examine several possible factors in tandem, and instead looking for a sole golden ticket, researchers had missed the multifarious web of pressures on bee populations. “It’s a lot easier to study a single stressor in the lab or the field,” Dave Goulson, coauthor of the paper told Vox. “But we haven’t really tried to tackle how these things all interact.”

An image from the study, via Vox

The lack of wild habitat pushes the insects into areas more likely to be coated with pesticides, a new class of which, neonicotinoids (yes, related to the nicotine in cigarettes), is known to damage bees’ nervous systems. This, in combination with other agricultural products like fungicides, makes the bees particularly susceptible to disease and parasites. So now that we know at least some of the causes affecting pollinator populations, what can we do to reverse the trend? Per Vox:

That would mean steps like incorporating more flower-rich habitat into farmland, reducing pesticide use when possible, and better monitoring the global bee trade in order to limit the spread of foreign diseases. The authors also note that we need better data on wild bees, which are actually responsible for the majority of crop pollination but about which we know fairly little.

Goulson tells Vox that we aren’t yet facing a “pollination crisis,” but there exists “the potential for things to go very, very badly in the near future.” The Vox piece also includes an informative, extended Q&A with Goulson that’s worth checking out, including more detail on the complicated threats facing bee colonies, and how the international trade in bees is making everything worse.

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