Threat to bee population puts one third of our food at risk

Crops and flowers that rely on pollination for their yields could be in peril as more than 1,000 species of bees in Canada and 20,000 species worldwide are facing the possibility of genetically-induced extinction, according to research by York doctoral candidate Amro Zayed and Prof. Laurence Packer, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Amro Zayed

Left: Amro Zayed

“The value of bees in crop pollination is more than $1 billion in Canada, and $15 billion in the US annually,” says Zayed, a graduate student in the Biology Program in the Faculty of Graduate Studies. “The ecological value of bees, however, is priceless. Pollination is an important link in the web of life. Global declines in bees will reduce the diversity of plants that need bees for reproduction. Almost all terrestrial ecosystems depend on bees.”

Packer notes that bees are the most important pollinators of agricultural crops and wild flowers. “One out of every three mouthfuls of our food depends directly upon pollination,” says Packer. “Our results help us understand why it is that so many bee populations have crashed in recent years and these declines have been observed across the globe as well as in Canada.”

Amaro Zayed at work

Right: Amro Zayed at work in the field

Zayed and Packer have discovered that bees are 10 times more likely to go extinct than previously thought and 10 times more likely to go extinct than other animals. “This happens because the sex determining system in bees can turn females into useless sterile males in small populations,” says Zayed, “which means that a small population is likely to be doomed to extinction.”

“Bees are the agricultural equivalent of canaries in a coal mine and their death signifies a much larger problem,” says Packer. “We have to make sure that we keep bee populations large – a lot larger than anybody has previously thought – in order to ensure that we have bees to pollinate our crops and flowers for generations to come.”

Zayed and Packer have written several journal articles about the decline in certain bee populations. A previous article appeared in Nov. 2003 in Biology Letters published by Britain’s prestigious Royal Society (see Dec. 1, 2003 issue of YFile).