But do you really know how many bees you’ll need?

I don’t know the exact numbers, but a lot of folks hear about declining bee populations, and seem to assume that’s talking about European honey bees. While it’s good to protect and care for our honey bees, the vast majority of bee troubles in the world are suffered by the myriad of wild species, many of which are specialists, surviving by pollinating one plant in particular. That means that if one bee that almost nobody is aware of goes extinct, it could soon be followed by a plant, and any other organisms that depend on it. That has big implications for any efforts at ecosystem management, so I’m glad that this team of researchers was looking into what sort of bee community is needed for a healthy meadow:

Previous research on bees as pollinators tended to focus on specific plants — frequently crops — or on entire communities of plants as if they were a single entity. This tended to over-emphasize the contribution of the most common bees, especially since 2% of the bee species provided 80% of the pollination in crops. But no previous work had asked the basic question: How many pollinator species are needed to pollinate all the species in a given community of plants?

Roswell and his colleagues have now shown that the more plant species there are, the more bee species are needed for pollination. They found that the less common bees often visited specific plants others didn’t. Their findings shed new light on the role of rare species in ecosystems — critical to conservation efforts because rare species are most at risk of extinction from habitat loss, pollution, climate change and other factors. The study appeared April 13, 2022, in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“Our work shows that things that are rare in general, like infrequent visitors to a meadow, can still serve really important functions, like pollinating plants no one else pollinates,” said Roswell, who studies diversity and pollination in the UMD Department of Entomology and is a co-author of the study. “And that’s a really good argument for why biodiversity matters.”

The researchers surveyed 10 plots in New Jersey that included wild meadows and seeded fields over one year. They observed bees from over 180 species making nearly 22,000 visits to over 130 different plant species. The team used these encounters to estimate the pollination services each type of bee provided to each plant, because a plant’s most frequent floral visitors are typically its most important pollinators.

Their analyses showed that an entire meadow community relied on 2 ½ to 7 ½ times more bee species for pollination than a single typical plant species does. They also found that the locally rare species accounted for up to 25% of the important pollinator species, and that number was greatest in meadows with the most plant diversity. This suggests that at larger scales like entire ecosystems, the number of locally rare species that are important for pollination is even greater.

“We were looking at meadows that might be a few acres in size,” Roswell said, “but a typical bee flies over a couple of square miles, which is a really large and complicated landscape filled with lots of different kinds of plants that flower at different times and are visited by different insects. At that scale, even more diversity of pollinators is likely to be important.”

As I’ve said before, I’ve largely given up on stopping climate chaos and mass extinction in my lifetime. My goal is to do what I can to slow it, and to help humanity survive long enough to get our act together. Part of that will need to be ecosystem management. As we work to survive a rapidly warming climate, we should invest whatever resources we can on helping the rest of the biosphere survive as well. Part of doing that is going to be understanding the general shape of a healthy ecosystem, so we can best decide how to help.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    Oh, yes, there is a crisis in the entire insect world. Insecticides have decimated the numbers of all creepy-crawlies, as well as all the flying “pests”. If you are old enough, and have a car, just think back to how many bug-splats you used to have to clean off your windshield (or windscreen) decades ago, and how few you have today. A lot of those splats were pollinators, and most of the others were food for birds, fish, and amphibians.
    Please keep in mind that when you choose between organic food and conventionally raised food, you are not just choosing whether or not to expose yourself and your family to pesticides. You are choosing whether or not to expose the Earth to more pesticides. I need to keep this more in mind myself.

  2. says

    @moarscienceplz – I want to push back on that last sentiment. I absolutely agree that we need to end pesticide use as it currently exists, but that’s not going to be changed by individuals buying organic more often. Leaving aside how loose the definition of “organic” is, the problem is caused at a governmental/systemic level with policies and subsidies.

    By all means buy as ethically as you’re able to, but I think that’ll do more for your own mental wellbeing (which is important!) than to change the system.

    It all comes back to organizing and building collective power, so we can force change to happen, over the objections of our current ruling class.

  3. Jazzlet says

    This is exactly the kind of work we need to challenge the “we’ll recreate the habitat somewhere else” brigade of developers. Not that there isn’t other work showing it isn’t as simple as just moving the plants, but the more information piles up the harder it is to ignore.

    Organic is not necesarily any better for insects than conventional, it may be worse. Organic farmers are allowed to use pesticides, just very old fashioned ones, and even where pesticide use would be decreased by the use of GMOs they aren’t allowed to use them. Take cotton, GMO cotton has the critical genes from Bacillus thuringiensis so it will kill most insects that snack on it, but it won’t kill other insects. However because of the blanket GMO ban organic farmers have to spray Bt to control insect damage, that spraying catches non-pest insect species and releases far more active ingredient into the environment resulting in far more insect death than using GMO cotton.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *