Native bees taking a hit, too

Honeybees -- those industrious imports who pollinate so prolifically that they're responsible for one bite out of every three in our food supply -- aren't the only ones in trouble.

National researchers have been worriedly logging studies about declines in other pollinating species as well, from bats to birds.

Photo of small Halictus, a sweat bee. Photo by Lisa Mandle of the Bryn Mawr College Biology Department.)

Yesterday, the National Academy of Sciences released a report confirming that some native bee populations -- the ones agriculture has depended on for centuries, until the advent of the honey bee -- are in decline. And one of the major culprits is no surprise: Habitat loss.

The scientists, led by Sydney A. Cameron of the University of Illinois at Urbana, found that the relative abundances of four species have declined by up to 96 percent over the last few decades. In addition, their surveyed geographic ranges have contracted by alarmingly -- as much as 87 percent, and even at the lowest level, 23 percent. 

The bumble bees also are being hit with higher infection levels of a pathogen known as Nosema bombi. 

AND -- the triple whammy -- they have lower genetic diversity than other populations of non-declining species. 

"Pollinator decline has become a worldwide issue, raising increasing concerns over impacts on global food production, stability of pollination services, and disruption of plant-pollinator networks," Cameron wrote.

Native bee populations matter hugely, given the decline of honey bees. Researchers in this area have been studying them, with the idea of determining if they could take up the slack -- regain their agricultural prominence -- if honey bee populations should collapse altogether.

Bryn Mawr College biologist Neal Williams is one of them, and I wrote about his work in this 2008 article