Why do we need to protect bees?

This is a very tricky question. Recent media coverage and policy makers are increasingly using the “ecosystem services” argument to justify the conservation of bee populations. Bees are indeed providing us with a precious service, the pollination of 75% of our crops. However, “bees” are a diverse group of more than 20.000 species. David Kleijn had the wonderful idea to check how many of those bee species are responsible of crop pollination and I was more than happy to help him find out. This is the resulting paper. Surprisingly very few species made most of the crop pollination job. Moreover, those species are the ones of least conservation concern, as I already showed here.

What does this means? We should enhance agro-ecosystems to maximize crop pollination by bees. There is no doubt about this and repeated papers had shown that more green infrastructure enhance pollinator densities and thereby pollination. BUT if we want to protect the bee species that really need our help, other measures and incentives are needed beyond ecosystem service delivery. Those threatened species pollinate wild plants, parasite other bees (potentially regulating populations) or are part of larger food webs. Conserving rare bees and other animals should be done without an economical incentive in mind, otherwise, conservationists selling the idea that biodiversity should be conserved because it provide us with services may end up shooting them selfs in the foot by allowing policy makers to protect only the species that are of any immediate use.

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Biodiversity insurance hypothesis in the real world

This year is being great and we have another great publication in Ecology Letters. We use long-term plant and pollinator data to show that high levels of biodiversity ensure plant pollinator matching over time despite climate change.

The story behind the paper starts 2 years ago (yes, it always take time!) when we did a paper showing that in general, plants and bees are advancing its phenology due to climate change at similar rates. The problem of this general patterns is that we don’t present data on any particular case study to show how this “general pattern” translates to a given system. My idea was doing a small follow-up using apple orchards as a case study. I ran the first analysis and saw that indeed, apple flowering and bee pollinators are advancing at similar rates. Cool, We can now provide a case study that validates the pattern observed! But then I went further and tried to see what happens when the main apple pollinators are analyzed one by one. Here the things got interesting because some bee species DO show a phenological mismatch with apple, but the total synchrony is stable at the community level because the effects of individual species cancel out. When I showed the results to Rachael, she immediately related them to the biodiversity insurance hypothesis, and we start working on validating this idea. That meant looking for more data, including a simulation, and a lot of fun reading the biodiversity ecosystem function literature. Is amazing how much of what we know relating biodiversity and ecosystem functioning is based on experiments in grasslands, so applying those concepts to real world trophic interactions was intellectually very stimulating. I like a lot the final paper and I am looking forward to work more on this topic, hopefully with less complex data.

Food webs: reconciling the structure and function of biodiversity. Really?

I read this paper (Food webs: reconciling the structure and function of biodiversity; Thomson et al. 2012 Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 27(12):689-697) with great interest because the title is really promising. Indeed it is nice overview of what’s out there in terms of network and functioning, but not much reconciliation. First I have the feeling that community ecologists (even if they don’t use network metrics) are already (and have been for a long time) on the framework they describe in Table 1C. But my main concern is that I missed an answer to the question: What can a network approach add to the study of ecosystem functioning?

Well, I have two ideas that can help answering that.

1) Network approach can be very useful when the function itself is defined by the network. If you are studying pollination or pest control, the actual function delivered is contained in the network structure, hence species richness, diversity or composition (or new metrics, like FD) can be unable to fully explain functionality  because what confers high levels of function (or stability) to the community is the network properties (e.g if it’s modular, generalized or well connected). I know some pople is on that path, so I am looking forward to see what they find.

2) Another situation where networks can make the difference is when indirect interactions modulate the function, but are too complex to track them one by one. Networks can describe better phenomenons like apparent competition or cascading effects than any other classical approach. If this type of complex interactions are relevant for the level of functioning measured (e.g. productivity of the basal level), then, adding the network perspective can be more informative than classical approaches.

May be what I am saying is too obvious, so the authors didn’t cover it, or I may be missing something, but this is the direction I would like to see things moving.

Is there a pollination crisis?

After some months writing this blog, finally I can do some self-promotion and post about our new article just published in PNAS.

Do you think we are experiencing a pollinator crisis? Take note of your answer and keep reading.

In this paper, we show that most Northeastern US bee species persisted along the last 100 year. And those are 100 years that has transformed the landscape dramatically. However, we show that community composition changed markedly. The loser species are some big species, often specialists and with short activity periods. See a quick figure I made trying to capture the essence to outreach people who only have one minute to spare.

BartomeusPNAS

So, what that tell us about a possible pollination crisis? A crisis is something that leads to an unstable and dangerous situation, in this case regarding the fate of pollinators and the service they deliver. Nobody talks about a bird crisis. Some bird species are doing great, some are threatened with extinction, but nobody would dare to generalize about the fate of all bird species as a whole. I think is time we take the same approach with such a diverse group as the pollinators (including bats, birds, butterflies, bees and a long etc…). In this paper we show that some bumblebees (e.g. Bombus impatiens) are doing great, while others are on the brink of extinction (e.g. Bombus affinis). We need to understand better species responses and stop crying wolf for all pollinators. There is a fine line between raising general aware among citizens about the importance of pollinators and their conservation and an overestimated alarmist call. Every time a farmer reads about the pollination crisis while seeing that his field is full of bees buzzing around, we (scientists) are loosing credibility.

Moreover, if is crop pollination and food security what concerns you, it may be that the winner pollinator species, those that thrive in human dominated landscapes, are also the best ecosystem service providers. And if it’s biodiversity (and its overall functioning) what you want to protect, then we should look at which species/habitats needs maximum conservation. We need to move forward and pose the relevant questions, instead of looking for a general declining pattern that hopefully is not really there.

I am expanding too much for my taste, so more on that next week. But to make clear my point: we need to keep studying pollinators (keep funding me!), but next time you cite worldwide pollinator declines, cite me also (i.e. Pots et al 2010, but see Bartomeus et al 2013).

Bartomeus I., Ascher J.S., Gibbs J., Danforth B.N., Wagner D.L., Hedtke S.M. & Winfree R.  Historical changes in northeastern US bee pollinators related to shared ecological traits, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,   DOI:

*Giving the importance of the subject, it was specially important for us to make all historical bee data available @datadryad (dx.doi.org/10.5061/dryad.…) for further analysis and replicability.