Plants and their pollinators

Here’s a scary thing. The temperature rise due to climate change is making bees start flying earlier in the spring, before flowers have bloomed, and that makes pollination less likely. Guess what pollination is necessary for – food production. Hello famine. (There’s also the horror of shrinking snow pack in the Himalayas, which will cut the water flow to the massive rivers in Asia that originate in that snow pack.) This story is just one particular bee and one plant – the miner bee and the early spider orchid – but if the pattern applies elsewhere, well – that’s ominous.

“We have shown that plants and their pollinators show different responses to climate change and that warming will widen the timeline between bees and flowers emerging,” said Dr Karen Robbirt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the University of East Anglia (UEA). “If replicated in less specific systems, this could have severe implications for crop productivity.”

And if crop productivity goes down, we’re all in deep shit.

Scientists have already identified a few timing mismatches caused by global warming between species and their prey. Oak tree buds are eaten by winter moths, whose caterpillars are in turn fed by great tits to their chicks, but the synchronicity of all these events has been disrupted.

Suspected mismatches have occurred between sea birds and fish, such as puffins and herring and guillemots and sand eels. The red admiral butterfly and the stinging nettle, one of its host plants, are also getting out of sync.

Not good.


  1. Blanche Quizno says

    I remember reading that, in Britain, some migratory songbird populations have crashed by 90% due to the timing mismatch. The caterpillars hatch based on average daily temperature (which means they’re hatching/maturing earlier due to rising average daily temperatures), while the migratory birds’ return and nesting/reproduction cycles are tied to day length (which isn’t affected by changes in temperature). I’m afraid I don’t remember the source 🙁

  2. Adrian Chan says

    Coincidentally enough, I’m actually writing a paper on this topic this term for an undergrad directed studies course. The latter example with the winter moths is more complicated than it appears. Usually, the populations at the northern extent of a species range are slightly asynchronous. Climate change may bring winter moths at the northern edge of their species range into synchrony with their hosts, driving the possibility of outbreak scenarios in those areas. You’ll probably see a shift in species range, especially when generalist species are concerned.

  3. Adrian Chan says

    Sorry, I should have made clear winter moths are not generalists. Pine processionary moths are generalists and will probably see a range shift because they aren’t restricted by host ranges.

  4. says

    Shrinking glaciers in the Andes, too. Thousands of towns and cities in south america depend on the water from Andean glaciers. When I was last there, the standard route on Chimborazo had become almost unclimbable due to the rockfall hazard because the ice was gone.

  5. Usernames! ☞ ♭ says

    It is a self-correcting system, of a sorts.

    Humans are the dominant cause of the imbalance, so a massive die-off will bring the system back into balance. Unless we change before massive flooding, famine and drinkable water shortages ramp up.

    Fun fact: In every geologic era, the dominant predator species went extinct or had a significant die-off. In current geologic era, the Cenozoic, we humans are the dominant predator species.

  6. guest says

    Conversely, the overwinter green manure crops I’ve been planting are already mature and flowering, while the bees in our hives have packed it in for the winter (although maybe not completely; the other day I saw some bees still flying around with pollen on their legs). I was just saying to someone how astonishingly unaffected my personal life has been so far by climate disruption, except for observations like this–but that can’t possibly last.

  7. Omar Puhleez says

    “In every geologic era, the dominant predator species went extinct or had a significant die-off. In current geologic era, the Cenozoic, we humans are the dominant predator species.”
    As the various geological epochs, periods, eras, etc are only distinguished from one another by their different biotas, that is really as much a statement about language as it is about life.
    But we are not so badly positioned, because unlike many other top predators (eg sharks, big cats), we are omnivores, with an omnivore’s gut. We can eat just about anything, and our distant and not-so-distant ancestors have certainly done so.
    Cockroach or grasshopper anyone? Battered, crumbed, fried or deep-fried.
    Delicious (I am told).

  8. M'thew says

    Omar Puhleez:

    Cockroach or grasshopper anyone? Battered, crumbed, fried or deep-fried.

    I guess wheat (for flour – batter and/or crumbs) will survive, as it doesn’t need pollinators. For frying, you might need some type of oil: and we humans have domesticated several plant species to provide that, that as far as I can tell are mostly safely within time limits to be pollinated (sunflowers, and also I hope peanuts). So that recipe is hopefully sustainable.

    However… I hope the grasshoppers don’t go rampant and eat all the wheat. Then you’d have to deep-fry them without batter or crumbs.

  9. quixote says

    Biologists have been aware of these problems for years, decades in some cases. And we’ve been running around with our hair on fire for that long.

    Sadly, now that regular people are starting to notice the effects, it’s actually already too late to avert major trouble. One major Antarctic ice sheet has already begun an unstoppable slide seaward, and a second even bigger one will soon follow unless the Antarctic climate gets colder in a hurry. The first sheet will cause at least a meter/3ft rise by the end of the century. That’s Florida, coastal Louisiana, Bangladesh, lots of coastal SE Asia, the Nigerian oil delta and swathes of Lagos, etc., etc., etc. All those people are going to try to move somewhere, which will eventually mean wars. Again: etc., etc., etc.

    One of the saddest moments in my life was when I realized I don’t envy the young. That’s so wrong.

  10. says

    It’s all very very not good and I don’t see any plausible way out of it.

    With this most recent election I’ve been questioning whether I was wrong to seek education and a job. I could have just moved in with my parents and been a full time climate activist.

    Not sure yet whether to regret that decision.

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