H. Resit Akçakaya is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University.
On October 31, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will, for the first time, put a bee on the Endangered Species List ― actually seven species of wild bees, all from the Hawaiian islands. Another species, the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee has been proposed for listing. This species used to live in a large part of the eastern U.S. and Canada, including Long Island. It is now found only in 41 counties, and is already listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature, Red List of Threatened Species.
Wild bee species are declining, not just in the U.S., but worldwide. Although few bee species have been studied sufficiently to determine whether they are threatened, data from those that scientists have studied suggests that up to a quarter of all wild bee species may be threatened with extinction. The causes of declines in bee species are not fully understood, but studies implicate intensive agricultural practices, including pesticide use, other types of environmental pollution, invasive species from other parts of the world, diseases, and climate change.
So, why should we care? One important reason is that bees are pollinators. In addition to the more than 20,000 species of wild bees and a few species of domesticated honey bees, many species of other insects, as well as birds and bats, pollinate our crops. According to a recent intergovernmental study sponsored by the U.N., more than a third of our crops depend on pollinators. These include many fruits, vegetables, and nuts, as well as coffee and cocoa. Both wild and domesticated pollinators are important for crop pollination; this study found that a diverse community of pollinator species more effectively pollinates our crops than any single species.
I worry about the decline of pollinators, and not just because I like coffee and chocolate. I worry because it is yet another example of one of the biggest challenges of our time. Biodiversity―the spectacular variety of life on Earth, with its intricate patterns and long history of evolution―is being lost rapidly because of human impact. Pollination is just one example of how profoundly the natural world affects the livelihoods, health and safety of humans. Beyond maintaining human life and civilization, biodiversity has priceless intrinsic value and unbelievable beauty. When we lose biodiversity, we lose our fundamental connection to other organisms, and our planet’s deep evolutionary heritage.
You may ask if simply caring and worrying is enough. Of course not, but I believe it is an excellent start. Because the biggest obstacle to biodiversity conservation is not scientific, technological or economic. It is the same obstacle hindering every positive change: apathy.