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Wild Bee Decline Threatens US Agriculture; First National Map of Bee Populations Created In Response

Dec 22, 2015 05:08 PM EST
Wild Bee
Wild bees are disappearing from many major agricultural areas across the United States, including California’s Central Valley, the Midwest’s corn belt and the Mississippi River valley.
(Photo : Flickr: John Flannery)

Wild bees – crucial agriculture pollinators – are disappearing from major farmlands across the United Sates, according to University of Vermont (UVM) researchers who recently created the first national map of bee populations. 

The researchers' map highlights 139 counties in key agricultural regions of California, the Great Plains, and the southern Mississippi River valley, to name a few. Crops grown in these areas range from almonds to pumpkins, squashes, blueberries, watermelons, peaches and apples – all of which are highly dependent on pollinators – as well as soybeans, canola and cotton, which are less dependent on pollinators. Researchers believe as much as 39 percent of the pollinator-dependent crop areas will suffer from the rising demand for pollination die to the inadequate supply of wild bees, according to a news release.

"It's clear that pollinators are in trouble," Taylor Ricketts, senior author and director of UVM's Gund Institute, explained in the release. "But what's been less clear is where they are in the most trouble – and where their decline will have the most consequence for farms and food."

Now, however, researchers have a clearer picture and can better assess how this will increase costs for farmers and the nation.

Of the nearly 4,000 species of bees that live in the U.S. alone, wild populations declined by 23 percent between 2008 and 2013, which is largely a result of their natural habitat being converted into cropland. For example, in 11 key states where researchers found bees in decline, the amount of land used to grow corn spiked by 200 percent in five years. Other factors such as disease, climate change and pesticide use also contributed to thier decline. 

"By highlighting regions with loss of habitat for wild bees, government agencies and private organizations can focus their efforts at the national, regional, and state scales to support these important pollinators for more sustainable agricultural and natural landscapes," Rufus Isaacs, co-author from Michigan State University, added.

Their study, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, follows a 2014 memorandum by President Barack Obama that called for a national assessment of wild pollinators and their habitat. 

"Wild bees are a precious natural resource we should celebrate and protect. If managed with care, they can help us continue to produce billions of dollars in agricultural income and a wonderful diversity of nutritious food," Ricketts concluded.

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