Environment

Bees under threat

25/03/2015

Domesticated bees are a familiar sight, and the threats facing honey bees are often in the news. But wild bees too are increasingly at risk. A new study of the status of all 1965 bee species in Europe hints that falling populations may be more widespread than we imagine.

To date, the decline of the domestic honey bee has dominated public debate, but the new European Red List of bees shows that 9 % of all bee species are threatened with extinction in Europe. It is the first such assessment of their status.

"9 % of all species of bee are threatened with extinction in Europe."

There are nearly 2000 wild bee species. They are often threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation resulting from more intensive agriculture, extensive use of pesticides and fertilisers, urban development and climate change. Bees depend on their habitat for nutrition, and when an ecosystem decays, bee health declines in parallel, leaving bees more susceptible to other threats such as pesticides.

The Red List, compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the European Commission, is a review of the conservation status of around 6000 European species, including mammals, reptiles, amphibians and insects. Identifying European species threatened with extinction helps define and implement the appropriate conservation actions.

Habitats are key

In addition to the 9 % already at threat from extinction, a further 5 % of Europe’s bee species are considered “near threatened”. At least 150 bee species are declining in number, while 244 are more or less stable.

Worryingly, for around half the European species there is insufficient scientific data to evaluate their risk of extinction – and the population trends of almost 80 % are unknown. The report underlines an urgent need for more research on the status and possible decline of bee populations.

This new Red List, which includes recommendations on species and habitat conservation, will feed into the mid-term review of the Europe 2020 Biodiversity Strategy. The Strategy includes targets on implementing EU legislation on nature protection, restoration of degraded ecosystems and more sustainable agriculture – all of which should improve the situation for bees.

Well-preserved habitats and healthy ecosystems are vital for bee health. Wildflower-rich grasslands are particularly important, and as these are also good for biodiversity in general, not to mention recreation and leisure, there are many advantages to preserving them. Wild bees are often specialised pollinators of specific plants, making them more effective than honey bees, so their decline can have a negative impact on crops such as fruit.

Insect pollination is worth some €15 billion a year to the EU – and the vast majority of this is carried out by bees. In parts of the world that have seen dramatic declines, manual pollination is imposing a heavy burden on agriculture.

Quality of life and the natural environment are intertwined – and the humble bee is one of the strongest illustrations of this.

 

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Nature and biodiversity