While the nation buzzes about the massive die-off of honeybees, native bumblebees are quietly going extinct. Although their role as pollinators contributes approximately $4 billion dollars to the country’s food system, honeybees are not native to the United States. They are used by commercial and hobby beekeepers for their excellent honey-producing qualities and ability to pollinate crops, but they are facing a virus that can spread to other pollinators — native bees — and that is widely feared to be causing an end to agriculture as we know it.
This winter, beekeepers lost 40 percent of their colonies to disease, which is certainly alarming and thankfully the focus of many scientists. But honeybees leave viruses behind on flowers, which are then passed on to native species, too.
“We thought finding these viruses was going to be like finding a needle in a haystack,” said Samantha Alger, lead author of a related study published in PLOS One, “but we found them in 19 percent of the flowers near apiaries.”
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Unlike the honeybee, few people track native bee populations, so they are slipping toward extinction without much attention. Several native bees are officially listed as threatened or endangered.
According to an article in Wired, “Honeybees will be fine. They are a globally distributed, domesticated animal. The bees you should be concerned about are the 3,999 other bee species living in North America, most of which are solitary, stingless, ground-nesting bees you’ve never heard of.”
In Minnesota, the government has gone so far as to offer to pay homeowners to transform their backyard gardens into habitat for the threatened rusty-patch bumblebee.
Other species aren’t as lucky, and some haven’t been seen for years. They might already be extinct. Though their contribution to commercial agriculture may not be as significant nor widely documented, native bees are a critical part of ecosystems and an important pollinator for many crops. Eggplants, for example, rely on local bumblebees for pollination.
“The honeybee is a livestock animal,” Alger said. “Being concerned about pollinator conservation and using the honeybee as your iconic image is about as logical as being concerned about bird conservation and using the chicken as your iconic image.”
Image via Jean and Fred