There are around 20,000 different species of bees on Earth, only one of which is the most known honey bee. Bees, in general, and especially honey bees, are an important part of almost every ecosystem on earth – they serve as pollinators of both wild and domesticated plants, thus enabling them to grow and, in turn, provide food for humans and other species. With global warming becoming an almost unavoidable fact, it’s time to ask an important question – what are the consequences for bees?
Does global warming affect bees? The short answer is yes. Climate change and the global rise of temperatures is affecting bees in a variety of ways. The bees will not only have to deal with slightly warmer temperatures, but also with habitat loss and increased risk of disease. The exacting longer term consequences of these changes for the bees are not yet known but it is widely agreed to cause for concern.
So, taking this into consideration, is it time to start panicking? Are bees going to die and can we survive without them? The truth is, bees might be able to adapt to the changing conditions in the environment as they have done for thousands of years, but it will not be easy and we don’t know yet exactly how and at what speed will they do so.
According to some estimates as much as one third of all the food we eat is made possible by bees and other pollinators. At the same time, the total honey bee population in the U.S. is now only half of what it was in 1945. But what exactly causes the honey bee populations to dwindle? Is global warming to blame? Well, no one is sure exactly, but it can be said with certainty that there are multiple factors present today that affect bees negatively. Modern agricultural practices, urbanization, and the spread of certain diseases affecting bees all have their role, but the effects of climate change cannot be ignored either. These are the four main problems bees have to deal with because of global warming:
Honey Bees and Climate Change
What Problems Are Bees Facing Because of Global Warming?
There are multiple reasons why bees are especially vulnerable to changing climate conditions. Most obvious of all, bees are very sensitive to temperature changes. The temperature is one of the factors that determine their yearly cycle, as they forage during the spring and summer and hibernate during the winter, feeding on the food they have gathered during the warm season. However, global warming also affects bees in other ways indirectly.
1. Shifting Temperatures
It is quite obvious that global warming brings forth higher temperatures. While 3 or 4 degrees might not seem as too much of a change to humans, for bees this kind of change in temperature can have serious, and even lethal, effects. These are not just empty speculations, but conclusions of a study(1) published in 2018 a scientific journal called Functional Ecology. In order to find out how global warming might affect bees, scientists from Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanical Garden set up three different kinds of bee nests in the mountains of Arizona. Namely, the set up three identical hives, but they painted one of them black which made it warmer on the inside and one of them white – which made it slightly cooler. The third hive was in a neutral wood color – to emulate the natural habitat of the bees common to that region. The black hive was only from three to four degrees warmer than the neutral hive, and this is a rise in temperature that is actually predicted to happen after the year 2040.
The experiment ran for two years and the results show that the bees faced serious problems when dealing with higher temperatures. Not only did many of them die, but the ones who survived were much smaller than regular bees. They also emerged from hibernation much later than the bees living in standard conditions. This can further cause all kinds of problems, since emerging from the hive later in the year might mean that the bees will not find as much food sources as they did in the past.
Now, while this study shows that the bees have serious issues to face when it comes to global warming, this still doesn’t mean that their fate is sealed and they are going to become extinct. The thing is, all living organisms have a tendency to adapt to the changing conditions of the environment over time – this is how evolution works, after all. Therefore, bees might be able to adapt to the rising temperatures, but for how long – we don’t know.
Another issue that comes with changes in temperature caused by global warming are the changes in phenology. Phenology is the study of life cycles of organisms in relations to climate and the environment, or in simple words – their timing. When temperatures rise globally, this causes the snow to melt earlier, which in turn causes the flowers to start blooming earlier too. If warmer temperatures result in bees emerging from the hives later, as the study mentioned in the previous section seems to show, but the flowers to bloom earlier, this might become a big issue for the bees as they will not be able to gather enough food to survive the year.
Bees will need to adapt to these changes if they are going to survive – but will they do it, and how quickly, we still don’t know.
3. Habitat Loss
Just like all living beings, bees rely on specific conditions in which they can thrive. Populations of bees are used to living in specific habitats, that include specific temperatures, weather conditions, and plant species they usually pollinate. New research(2) shows that the natural habitats of bees are shrinking due to global warming, and not all bees are able to adapt by simply moving to areas with colder temperatures.
Honey bees can become infected by a variety of diseases and parasites, including Varroa mites. With rising temperatures, and because all of the issues we mentioned above, bees are under a lot of stress and they are becoming weaker, which in turn might make them more susceptible to disease. New studies also show that warmer temperatures provide ideal conditions for the spread of an exotic type of honey bee parasite – Nosema ceranae which means honey bees are facing greater risks of disease than ever before.
Please see our other article on the topic of disease:
Final Thoughts: The Relationship Between Humans And Bees
As we have already mentioned, bees are incredibly useful for humans. Not only do they provide us with honey and other products like royal jelly, but they also play an important role in agriculture. On the other hand, human activity often has a negative effect on bees. Bees cannot survive very well in some urban environments due to lack of food. Moreover, some pesticides used in agriculture can affect the health of bees, and the practice of renting out beehives to pollinate specific plantations can lead to malnutrition.
How can we help combat the negative effects of global warming on bees?
Bees are facing a lot of difficulties today, many of which are caused by humans. However, individuals can actually do quite a bit to help them and it doesn’t take a lot of effort. There are two easy things that can be done, fostering bee-friendly plants and avoiding pesticides. When it comes to the first solution, you don’t need to plant a special garden of plants for bees (although this is a good idea, too). Just letting plants like dandelions and clover grow on your lawn, as they naturally do, will be of great help to bees. Moreover, you can help combat the use of harmful pesticides even if you don’t grow any fruits and vegetables on your own by buying your produces from local, eco-friendly growers who don’t use harmful chemicals.
Can we survive without bees?
Bees pollinate a lot of plants that we use as food, thus allowing them to survive, and they are an important part of agriculture in the modern world. Plants pollinated by bees include apples, almonds, cucumbers, grapes, and even coffee, along with a variety of other plants. In some cases, the role of bees as pollinators could be substituted with pollination by artificial means, but that wouldn’t be anywhere nearly as efficient. Therefore, if bees were to disappear, humans probably wouldn’t die, but we would have a huge problem with our diet. Obviously, it’s time to reconsider what we are doing to our own environment not only for the sake of bees, but also for our own sake.
CaraDonna, Paul J. et al. 2018. Experimental warming in the field delays phenology and reduces body mass, fat content and survival: Implications for the persistence of a pollinator under climate change. Functional Ecology 32. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.13151
WTTW: Climate Change Could Kill Off Bees, Northwestern Study Finds:https://news.wttw.com/2018/06/28/climate-change-could-kill-bees-northwestern-study-finds
Justin Worland: Bees Are Losing Their Habitat Because of Climate Change:http://time.com/3951339/bees-climate-change/
Marissa Fessenden: How Climate Change is Messing With Bees: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/how-climate-change-messing-bees-ability-pollinate-180956523/