The Buzz about Bees and Biodiversity

Bees and other pollinators are crucial components of our ecosystem and critical to a healthy, diverse food supply. Pollinators bring to life many of our favorite lush landscapes and a significant portion of the nutritious fruits, nuts and vegetables in our diets. Just as we enjoy the various components of our ecosystem that provide for a diverse environment and that work in tandem to maintain a viable food chain, pollinators also rely on biodiversity in order to thrive.

Bee on dandelionBiodiversity refers to the variety of living beings in a particular habitat or ecosystem; the more diverse, the greater the assortment of species coexisting and participating in the food chain. Just like humans enjoy a diverse array of food sources (and even require a well-rounded mix of foods within their diets in order to remain healthy), pollinators also benefit from a robust and varied food supply. For them, that’s forage—flowers and other plants that serve as sources of nutrition and habitat for pollinators.

Various studies have found that a lack of diverse forage can contribute to weakened immune systems and greater susceptibility to diseases and other health issues in pollinators like honey bees. An easy way everyone can help support pollinator health is by planting a variety of pollinator-attractive flowering plants in your garden, backyard or even on your front doorstep. Even the smallest bit of additional viable forage is advantageous to pollinator health. You can find out more about how to create beneficial pollinator forage, including a list of pollinator-attractive plants that can be grown successfully in most regions of the U.S., on the Feed a Bee website.

For growers, this can also refer to planting cover crops, which are used to improve soil erosion, soil quality and biodiversity within an agroecosystem. These flowering cover crops not only benefit the soil but also provide crucial forage for bees and other insects who may already be in the field helping to pollinate crops.

Ceothonus Julia PhelpsWe’ve talked about what biodiversity means for pollinators, but what about the bigger picture: the role pollinators play in biodiversity for our planet? A study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2018 and led by researchers at Rutgers University found that a greater variety of bee species generally contributes to more productive pollination (which increases with spatial scale). That variety is threatened when factors like a loss of forage, irresponsible beekeeping or irresponsible agricultural practices come into play. So, taking good care of all kinds of pollinators benefits not only the pollinators themselves but also the many plants and crops they pollinate, many of which humans and other animals need for sustenance.

A loss of biodiversity stemming from increased urbanization and related disruptions to habitats is a leading challenge pollinators face. A research study, also funded by NSF and implemented by scientists at the University of California San Diego, found that “habitat fragmentation due to human activity reduces bee diversity and creates a shift in natural seasonal changes that influences the number and type of bees present, affecting pollination services.” It also found that “bees living in urban scrub fragments possess relatively less variation in behaviors and physical characteristics (for example, food preferences), meaning they might not be able to render the range and quality of pollination services that bee communities in undisturbed habitats can provide.” In short, this means that pollinators can be negatively impacted by shifting factors within their natural habitat (think of those food and habitat forage sources mentioned earlier, and disruptions to their natural habitats caused by humans like the urbanization referenced in this study), which can have a trickle-down effect on pollination for a wide variety of flowering plants.

Feed a BeeOne easy way that everyone can do their part to counteract these negative impacts on pollinator health and support greater biodiversity is to plant the forage that pollinators need to stay well-fed and healthy, which can be in the form of a pollinator patch in your home garden or community, a potted plant on your doorstep or cover crops within your crop fields. Every little bit helps to support the health of pollinators, like bees and butterflies, and the many contributions they make to our biodiverse ecosystem! If you’re a beekeeper, make sure you’re taking good care of your hives by following the Healthy Colony Checklist, and if you’re a grower, check out these tips on how to safeguard the health of nearby pollinators when tending to your crops. Consider planting some cover crops for them, as well. Nearby pollinators – and the entire ecosystem – will thank you.