Seven species of Hawaiian yellow-faced bees have been added to the US endangered species list. While this is great news for bees in Hawaii, bees elsewhere remain unprotected since the Hawaiian species are the first to be added to the list.
However, this is a good step forward since endangered status affords funding, protections and publicity which might lead to the protection of other bee species. Bee decline has been in the public consciousness for a while – Greenpeace reports that commercial honey bees have declined 40% in the U.S. since 2006, 25% in Europe since 1985 and 45% in the UK since 2010. This is not to mention all of the non-commercial species which aren’t bred for profit.
The decline of bees is a unique problem because of how intertwined they are with their environments. The Xerces Society, the organization that successfully petitioned for the Hawaiian bees to be put on the list, reports that the bees are threatened by a wide variety of factors including destruction of habitats, fires and the introduction of non-native plants, animals and insects.
Honey isn’t the only benefit of bees – they’re crucial to pollination. As the Xerces Society says, “These bees are important pollinators of native Hawaiian plants, many of which are also endangered and the decline of these bees might lead to the loss of native plants.” Greenpeace reports that the economic value of bee pollination is 265 billion Euros annually. This is because the food we and our livestock eat is pollinated by bees. They are in decline partially because of the insecticide used on those very same food crops.
Biological diversity is also a large part of the equation. The less diverse our diets, the more farmland will be filled with the same vegetables, making nearby bees’ diets unhealthy. A study published in PLOS ONE confirms that diverse pollen is crucial to bee health: “Indeed, we found that both bee physiology and tolerance to a parasite varied depending on the type of pollen diet, suggesting that not only does the availability but also the quality of environmental resources matter.” If only one low-quality type of pollen is available, bees will suffer.
Some bees are adapted to have a relationship with only certain plants, which is the reason Hawaii’s native plants are also endangered by the bees’ status. UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab explains this as a difference between “specialists” and “generalists.” While generalist bees can forage the pollen of a variety of plants, specialists only forage from a few or even one single species. Sometimes this species of bee is the sole pollinator of a particular plant species. This means if either the bee or the plant become extinct, the other will likely parish as well.
In other words, when we decided that we would import livestock and plant species instead of eating Hawaii’s native foods, it spelled disaster for the bees. Doing so introduced predators, destroyed habitats, reduced plant diversity and increased the native bees’ competition.
But not all is lost. Being placed on the endangered species list is an important first step for Hawaii’s yellow-faced bees. There are also certain things we can do to help mitigate the problem.
Awareness helps, and so does following the laws set up to protect endangered species. The U.S. Endangered Species Act designates “critical habitat” zones to keep people or corporations from interfering with endangered species, so any activities in or near these zones should be conducted only with expert guidance. We can also eat more diverse diets, which include plants native to our area, and we can stay away from pesticide use – especially those formulas known to harm bees and other pollinators.
The organizations mentioned here also have ways to donate and help out. Caring about making change works – after all, Xerces Society successfully petitioned for bees to be on the list.
Aside from the organizations named above, the World Wildlife Fund’s website provides ways to help all endangered species, and they’re aware of the bee problem. To explain the situation, they cite the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization as saying, “90% of the world’s food supply comes from about 100 crop species, and 71 of those crops (especially fruits and vegetables) rely on bees for pollination.”
In other words, we really need bees.