Rutgers-led research finds bee decline threatens crop yields
Declining bee populations could lead to increased food insecurity and economic losses in the billions.
Bees have endured a disastrous half-century. In the winter of 2018, U.S. beekeepers reported losing 37.7 percent of their honeybee colonies. It was the largest die-off reported since the Bee Informed Partnership began its survey in 2006, yet in that decade, average winter losses of managed colonies were 28.7 percent. That's near twice the historic rate and part of a 50-year trend of declining species richness in wild bees and other pollinators.
That's bad news for the bees and also anyone who depends on the food generated through their labor. That is, all of us. According to the USDA, approximately 35 percent of the world's food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce, with some scientists estimating that "one out of every three bites of food we eat exists because of animal pollinators."
That many crops depend on pollination to reproduce is well-established; however, how much pollination proves a limiting factor to crop yield is less understood. If wild bee and managed honeybee populations continue to decline, will the amount of food available to feed us decline, too? That's the question a Rutgers-led team of researchers sought to answer.
From bee to farm to table
A bar graph showing the percentage of pollination limitation for the seven crops studied.
The research team selected seven crops to study: apples, almonds, pumpkins, watermelons, sweet cherries, tart cherries, and highbush blueberries. These were chosen because each is highly dependent on insect pollination for reproduction. The researchers then established a nationwide study across 131 U.S. and British Columbia farms. They selected only commercial farms in top-producing states—for example, Michigan and Oregon farms for blueberries. This way, their sample would represent the conditions and farming practices in which a majority of these crops are grown.
After collecting data on pollinator visitation rates and crop production, the researchers measured the data through three statistical models. They also analyzed the contribution differences between wild bees and managed honeybees as well as the economic value of the bees' service.
"We found that many crops are pollination-limited, meaning crop production would be higher if crop flowers received more pollination. We also found that honey bees and wild bees provided similar amounts of pollination overall," Rachael Winfree, a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the study's senior author, said in a release. "Managing habitat for native bee species [and] stocking more honey bees would boost pollination levels and could increase crop production."
Of the crops studied, apples, blueberries, sweet cherries, and tart cherries were hit hardest when pollination decreased. Watermelon and pumpkin yields weren't as limited by pollinators, possibly because these crops sport fewer blooms and flower in summer when the weather is less inclement. Almonds proved the outlier as the crop is the earliest bloomer yet not pollination limited. The researchers speculate that this is due to the almond industry's intense reliance on managed honeybees.
"Our findings show that pollinator declines could translate directly into decreased yields or production for most of the crops studied, and that wild species contribute substantially to pollination of most study crops in major crop-producing regions," the researchers write.
For the seven crops studied, the researchers estimate the annual production value of pollinators to be more than $1.5 billion. They also found that wild bee species provided comparable pollination, even for crops in agriculturally intensive regions.
Their findings were published in the most recent Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
Ecological and edible incentives
A protester shows a handful of bees that died by pesticides. The protest was held during the Bayer AG shareholder meeting in 2019.
(PhooMaja Hitiji/Getty Images)
The concern extends beyond these seven. Crops such as coffee, avocados, lemons, limes, and oranges are also highly dependent on pollinators and may prove pollination limited. If declining bee populations are tied to such yields, it could mean barer supermarket shelves and increased prices. While that may only be an annoyance to some, to poor and vulnerable communities who already struggle to secure salubrious, affordable food, such a deficit would present another barrier to the vital micronutrients necessary for a healthy life and diet.
Unfortunately, the threats to bees are numerous. Parasites, agrochemicals, monoculture farming, and habitat degradation all play a role, and neither stressor works in isolation. Sublethal exposure to neonicotinoids, an insecticide, can cause impairments in bees, while monoculture farming serves up a monotonous and unhealthy floral buffet. Both impede bees' immune systems, rendering them vulnerable to parasites such as Varroa destructor, a mite that can transmit debilitating viruses as it feeds on bees' fat bodies. And all of these stressors will likely be inflamed by climate change in the years to come.
Some have proffered mechanical solutions, such as Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology where technicians are developing robotic bees. These micro-drones are covered in gelled horsehair and have successfully cross-pollinated Japanese lilies. Other experiments include pollen sprays. However, the large-scale viability of tech-centric solutions seems questionable. After all, wild bees currently perform their ecological services pro bono and are as effective as managed honeybees. Any technological solution implemented in their absence would add to the agricultural costs and likely increase prices anyway.
Ecological amelioration will be necessary. To combat habitat fragmentation and strengthen biodiversity, many cities are implementing green-way strategies. For example, the Dutch city of Utrecht has decked its bus stop roofs with plants and grasses to create bee and butterfly shelters, while other cities are looking to foster bee-friend roadsides. And government initiatives incentivize farmers and landowners to adopt bee-friendly management practices. These solutions aren't only a matter of ecological conservation but also food security and public health.
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- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
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