Vanishing Bees Should Not Be the New Normal
"The time to take action is now."
I have seen neither hide nor tail of my Hairy-footed Flower—female, nor any others of her kind, since I watched her on the snowdrops a few days ago. I know it in my heart, but it is difficult, nonetheless, to state it.
She emerged too soon.
Everything is so out of kilter these days, and the more tuned in you are to what is going on around you, the more obvious this becomes. You don’t need to read or hear about the changes in the planet on the news; you can see and sense them for yourself.
An increasing number of pollinator species are beginning to emerge earlier or later than they used to; birds are pairing off and starting to nest when they shouldn’t; and plants that used to flower in February are now flowering in November, or vice versa. There are many other examples, far too numerous to list, of changes in wildlife and plant behavior. Many of us have grown aware of these changes, just as we have become aware of the changes in weather patterns. Worryingly, though, we are now beginning to expect rather than be surprised by the unexpected, and this, in turn, has led us to become more accepting of situations that should actually be causing us a great deal of concern.
We can shake our heads and talk about how different things were in the halcyon days of yore, but were the treasured landscapes of our childhoods really so very perfect? Compared with what we are witnessing today, they probably were, but our grandparents, having witnessed the massive changes that came about after the mechanization of agriculture in the early and mid 20th century, would most likely think differently. Whilst we hark back to the days when our gardens were full of butterflies, and we had to stop to wipe our car windscreens clear of flying insects, our grandparents’ childhoods would have been enriched by the sight of majestic English elms and swathes of flower-rich grasslands, as well as the sounds of corncrakes, curlews, and turtle doves. These sights and sounds would have been as familiar to our grandparents as were the clouds of garden butterflies, and the poor squished insects on our windscreens, were to us. This phenomenon is known as shifting baseline syndrome.It is becoming increasingly apparent that some flowering plants and the insects that pollinate them are beginning to fall out of sync.
Shifting baselines cause human beings’ perceptions of what is “normal” to change over time. Due to our short life spans and flawed memories, our baselines—that is, our collective and individual perceived knowledge of the world around us—shift with each successive generation. From a conservation point of view, we are measuring the degradation of the natural world based on childhood memories of what we assume was the norm, and more than that, of what we hold dear as a perfect state of nature. It is often this picture of perfection we strive to return to. However, what we saw as perfect twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty years ago, our ancestors would have seen as unrecognizably degraded. Our children, in turn, will view what we see as degraded as perfectly natural.
Change, per se, is neither inherently good nor bad. It is simply a part of life. How often have you found yourself sitting in a given moment wishing it would last forever, whilst simultaneously knowing it cannot? Or, conversely, had someone tell you whilst you are in a state of deep sadness, anguish, or distress that “time heals,” or that “this too will pass”? I can think of many such moments. But there is change, and there is change. The changes in the natural world that we are currently witnessing are of such magnitude that we can barely comprehend, let alone assimilate, their significance and probable consequences. What will it take for the balance to finally tip from these changes causing mild concern to engendering unilateral alarm?
Many of us are concerned, some of us are alarmed, but the vast majority are merely aware, to some extent or another, that something is not quite right. Yes, there has been a shift in recent years in attitudes towards plastic waste, disposable products, composting, animal welfare, and the planetary impacts caused by overconsumption of meat and the shipment of goods thousands upon thousands of miles. But despite these shifts, some of them huge, humanity still appears to be oblivious to the true magnitude and urgency of these issues. And others, such as soil degradation, habitat loss, deforestation, pesticide contamination, loss of biodiversity, and the elephant in the room—climate change—are barely registering any changes in how we live on, and with, our planet.
Nature is in a constant state of flux, forever flowing this way and that. Individual species come and go, as do ice ages and interglacial periods. Landscapes change, sea levels rise and fall, and continents drift. But the changes in climate that we are currently witnessing are extremely unusual compared with those the planet has previously undergone.
Using evidence gleaned from tree rings, glacial ice, sedimentary rocks, and coral reefs, scientists have been able to build up a picture of average global temperatures and changes in the climate stretching back at least 800,000 years. Over this time, the Earth has experienced many extreme changes, but the rate of warming over the last century has been around ten times faster than previous rates, and this is predicted to double over the coming century. In the past two million years, average global surface temperatures have rarely approached the levels they are projected to reach over the next few decades. These facts are alarming, and the time to take action is now.
Climate change is already causing greater fluctuations in temperature, as well as excessive rainfall—resulting in flooding—one month, followed by no rain—resulting in drought—the next. Some of the negative effects of these changes, when considered alongside the life cycles of bees and other pollinators, are tangible.
A newly established bumblebee or solitary bee nest situated beneath the ground is not going to survive a flood; when rainfall is heavy and constant, bees cannot get out to forage, and if they manage to go out between downpours, it is extremely difficult for them to access the nectar and pollen in flowers filled with rainwater, so they are more likely to go hungry, and their nests to fail. The lack of available pollen and nectar causes more problems for some species than others; honeybees, for instance, are able to feed on the honey and pollen stores they have built up in their hives for as long as these provisions last, and bumblebee colonies can survive for up to a few weeks on the nectar they have stored in their nests. Solitary bees, however, do not store honey, pollen, or nectar, so when food is scarce, they starve and die.
Dry conditions are no better. Increased temperatures, or extreme or prolonged droughts, cause flowers to wither and die, leaving little or nothing for insects to forage upon. But long before plants reach this stage, they begin to respond to the stresses imposed upon them, through lack of water and changing soil conditions, by producing less pollen, less nectar, and fewer flowers. This modification allows the plants to use what resources they can still draw upon to survive rather than to reproduce.
Yet flooding and drought are not the only challenges faced by pollinators because of climate change, and some of the problems are more complex and subtle than those I have just mentioned. As climate change brings with it ever-increasing extremes of weather, new patterns of behavior are beginning to emerge amongst wildlife as it adapts to cope.
Insects are already responding to our warmer winters by changing their behavior and life cycles. Some are shifting their geographical range to match new climatic ranges, as witnessed by once uncommon species, such as the Hummingbird Hawk-moth, becoming regular visitors in gardens both in Britain and Ireland. Birds like little egrets and blackcaps are also migrating in greater numbers to our shores. However, according to recent scientific studies, it appears that some bumblebees in Europe and North America, whilst decreasing the southern extent of their ranges, are for some as yet unknown reason not expanding their range northwards. This means they are being squeezed into a narrower corridor.
The Great Yellow bumblebee, which is hanging on in the northernmost edges of Britain and Ireland, simply has nowhere else to go. There are winners and losers, but for many species, climate change is happening too quickly for them to adapt.
It is worth mentioning that some bees are able to switch into survival mode when they need to, instead of putting their energies into reproduction. Just as plants stop producing pollen and nectar when they are stressed, so do honeybee queens stop laying eggs when there is insufficient pollen available to feed their larvae. But what of the many other bee species, which only have a slim window of opportunity to provision their nests and lay their eggs? What will happen to them if the plants they rely on do not come into flower during the short time they are on the wing?
The timing of biological events such as insect emergence and plant flowering times is called phenology. Scientists are conducting research to find out how climate change is affecting pollinators, like my Hairy-footed Flower bee, at a species level.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that some flowering plants and the insects that pollinate them are beginning to fall out of sync. All rely on climatic signals and cues to one degree or another, but some use daily temperatures as cues—the onset of autumn frosts, for instance, is needed to trigger bud formation in some plants—whilst others use the length of daylight hours. If two species that depend on each other use different cues, or respond differently to the same cue, then both are in trouble.
Here in Britain and Ireland we do not need scientists studying phenology to tell us about the changes in the nesting behavior of certain bumblebee species. Whilst it might still be unusual to find bluebells flowering in early March or late August, or Hairy-footed Flower bee females foraging on snowdrops in mid February, it is becoming increasingly normal to see active colonies of bumblebees in the south of England in the winter—a phenomenon that was, until quite recently, unheard of. Instead of going into hibernation over the winter as they always have done in the past, some Buff-tailed bumblebee queens have for some years now been establishing new colonies in the autumn and producing workers that continue to forage throughout the winter months. And in the warmest parts of southern England, there has been evidence that these colonies produce reproductives during winter months, which means this species is becoming active all year round.
When I first started planting specifically for bees, the advice on offer was mostly about what to plant in spring, summer, and autumn, but to sustain these new populations of winter-flying bumblebees and other insects, we need to think about providing extra forage in the cold winter months, too. We can help them by planting winter-flowering plants such as mahonias, winter-flowering honeysuckle, heather, hellebores, snowdrops, and winter aconites. All these plants are winter hardy, so can cope well with frosts and light snowfall. Plant them, and they will provide life-saving nectar for winter-flying bees.
With the exception of Buff-tailed bumblebees and one or two others, the majority of bee species in Britain and Ireland still, mercifully, remain inactive during the cold winter months. But when spring arrives, bringing with it warmer temperatures and longer daylight hours, life begins to stir, and spring is coming earlier. Honeybee workers break away from their winter clusters, and the first of our queen bumblebees begin to emerge from hibernation or diapause, as bulbs and other plants begin to flower. If the temperatures are warm enough, this emergence could occur as early as February. Our earliest flying solitary bee species rarely appear much before March, but with weather fluctuating more wildly because of climate change, we may see more unusually warm weeks in January and February, too.
We have no idea yet how individual plants and pollinators will adjust and adapt to climate change, but the fact that some are already out of sync just compounds the myriad other challenges—from intensive farming and habitat loss, to pesticides, disease, and invasive species—that pollinators, and all the other creatures on this planet, already have to cope with. I hope and pray that governments and business leaders will wake up to this emergency and begin working together in earnest to reduce carbon emissions, which are, without doubt, the leading cause of the dramatic changes in Earth’s climate.
In the meantime, we can all do our bit at home to help mitigate the effects of climate change and other threats to biodiversity, by reducing our own carbon footprint and waste, taking care of the soil, finding alternatives to pesticides, and planting, not just flowers but also meadows, shrubs, and trees. Planting, planting, planting, as though our lives depended on it. Because they do. It is never too late to be the change.
Excerpt from Dancing with Bees: A Journey Back to Nature by Brigit Strawbridge Howard (Chelsea Green Publishing, September 2019). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.