About 94 per cent of wild bee and native plant species networks lost, York study finds

Small carpenter bees
Small carpenter bees
Sandra Rehan

Climate change and an increase in disturbed bee habitats from expanding agriculture and development in northeastern North America over the last 30 years are likely responsible for a 94 per cent loss of plant-pollinator networks, researchers found.

The paper, “Wild bee declines linked to plant-pollinator network changes and plant species introductions,” was published in the journal Insect Conservation and Diversity.

Sandra Rehan, an associate professor in York University’s Faculty of Science, and grad student Minna Mathiasson of the University of New Hampshire, looked at plant-pollinator networks from 125 years ago through present day. The networks are comprised of wild bees and the native plants they historically rely on, although most of those have now been disrupted.

About 30 per cent of plant-pollinator networks were completely lost, which translates to a disappearance of either the bees, the plants or both. In another 64 per cent of the network loss, the wild bees, such as sweat or miner bees, or native plants, such as sumac and willow, are still present in the eco-system, but the bees no longer visit those plants; the association is gone.

The remaining six per cent of the plant-pollinator networks are stable or even thriving with pollinators such as small carpenter bees, which like broken stems for nest making.

“There are several reasons for the losses in the networks,” Rehan explained. “Climate change is likely the biggest driver. We know that over the last 100 years or so annual temperatures have changed by two and a half degrees. This is enough to alter the time when certain native plants bloom.

“For a bee that’s out for months on end or is a generalist pollinator, this isn’t such a critical mismatch, but for a bee that’s only out for two weeks of the year and only has a few floral hosts, this could be devastating.”

Andrena vacinia, a miner bee, is one of the declining native bee species
Andrena vacinia, a miner bee, is one of the declining native bee species

An increase in non-native species of bees and invasive species of plants, which have displaced some of the native species, is another reason for the decline in networks.

“We are getting a lot of invasive species and new records of invasive species every year. This is usually accidentally through trade and through ornamental plants,” said Rehan.

A lot of these bees live in stems, so it’s easy to import plants along with non-native bee species without knowing it. “We can actually show routes and means of invasion biology,” she continued.

These bees are following shipping routes from one continent to the other around the world, including to North America through ornamental plants for our gardens.

The researchers say an increase in habitat restoration and native flowering plants in agricultural landscapes are critical for improving wild bee biodiversity, but also food security for humans.

Bees and other pollinators generate hundreds of billions of dollars of economic activity globally by pollinating crops, and wild bees are at the top of the list believed to pollinate more than 87 per cent or 308,006 flowering plant species. Many of these are economically important commercial crops, such as apples and blueberries.

“There is an urgent need to gain a deeper understanding of the environmental circumstances affecting these wild pollinator populations and their specialized, evolutionary relationships with plant communities,” said Rehan. “Plant pollinator webs are dependent on changes in the landscape, so knowing how these networks are shaped is important for all regional habitats.”

Recent research by Rehan and her team looked at 119 wild bee species over 125 years and found 14 declining and eight increasing species. All of the wild bee species in decline are native and over half experienced significant range latitude and elevation shifts.