The plight of the honeybee has been in the news recently. Last month, President Obama set up a “pollinator health task force” so the press is full of stories on our honey –making friends. An important pollinator of many crops – a future without honeybees would be bleak.
But what about the honeybees’ cuddly cousin – the bumblebee? They’ve received less attention, perhaps we think that since they don’t produce honey, we can do without them?
No bumblebees = no chips or ketchup!
Bumblebees can “buzz” their wings at very high frequencies, whilst honeybees can’t. Some plants have evolved to release their pollen only when buzzed at this higher frequency, leaving the honeybee empty-handed, whilst the bumblebee is loaded with pollen to carry to the next flower. About 8% of the world’s flowering plant’s rely on Buzz pollination, which doesn’t sound too impressive, but this 8% includes aubergines, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, blueberries and cranberries!
Farmers growing their crops in hothouses have a problem. How do you get enough bees into a greenhouse to effectively pollinate the crops? After WW2, people used “bee wands” – electronic devices a bit like an electric toothbrush. Keen gardeners can still buy electric bees, but it’s very labour intensive so expensive. Then in the 1980s, Bombiculture was born! Scientists in the Netherlands developed commercial strains of bumblebees which didn’t hibernate over winter, and whose egg production could be “turned on”. Commercial, european bees have been shipped all over the world in a multi-million dollar business.
The problem is, the bees didn’t stay in the green houses. In February 2013 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) stated that the global trade in bumblebee colonies had resulted in invasive bumblebee species, posing multiple risks to native species. Commercial bees compete with wild ones for food and habitat, and spread diseases, with potentially profound impacts on native bumblebees.
These threats, added to loss of habitat, pesticides and climate change, have caused drastic bumblebee decline. 16 out of 68 european species (including 3 important crop pollinators) are at risk of extinction, even more worldwide.
You can help!
There’s loads of info and ideas at the bumblebee conservation trust, even if you don’t have a garden. If you do, see our post about “homes for wildlife” to make a home for bees, birds and other animals.