Vanishing wild bees will sting ecosystem


Richard Moore

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Vanishing wild bees will sting ecosystem
December 29, 2007

This is a darkening time for the world. I want to explain why in this column, 
but I also want to point to the effort of one family in Norfolk County that is 
trying to keep open one tiny speck of light.

They can't hold back the darkness by themselves. But they're doing what they 
can, and if others do the same, well, that's how a ray of hope develops.

There's a darkening because, with global warming, things are starting to get out
of joint in nature.

For instance in Holland, the food chain is being disrupted around Great Tits, 
small birds with black and white heads and pale yellow breasts with a black 
stripe. They lay their eggs at the same time each year and feed their nestlings 
with winter moth caterpillars. The caterpillars eat newly sprouted oak leaves 
that have not yet acquired tannin. However, spring temperatures have risen and 
both the caterpillars and the oak leaves appear earlier, but at different times 
and this limits the food supply for both the nestlings and the caterpillars.

There are similar stories of a growing mismatch almost everywhere. It raises 
concern that as warming progresses, mismatches will become greater and more 

In North America, the most serious situation may be with managed bees that are 
used for pollinating farm crops. In the last two or three years they have been 
disappearing by the hundreds of millions. In addition, up to 90 per cent of wild
bees have disappeared. No one knows exactly why.

There are many single-cause theories for their disappearance: They are being 
killed by pesticides, by viral diseases carried by mites, by fungi, by 
electromagnetic radiation, by genetically modified plants, by so many medicinal 
antidotes that their immune systems are compromised, by sterile pollen, by 

However, in a provocative paper delivered in New Orleans in October, professor 
Peter Harries-Jones of York University in Toronto called on scientists to 
broaden their perspectives. Start looking at behaviour in ecosystems instead of 
searching for a single cause-and-effect culprit, he urged.

Prominent among the impacts experienced by bees, but not adequately studied, is 
global warming, he said, pointing out that in Baltimore, pollen and nectar are 
produced almost a month earlier than they were in the 1970s. This, for bees, has
been a life-altering change.

But it may be coming on top of other life-altering changes. There's a suspicion,
he said, that global warming may be causing some plants to produce sterile 
pollen. It's known that sterile pollen can result if temperatures are unusually 
hot when flower buds and pollen grains are forming. And if sterile pollen is a 
factor, Harries-Jones asks, when will mapping of ecosystem interactions begin?

Never forget, he warned, that ecosystems are intricate and complex networks, 
held together by "communicative interaction," and that timing is crucial to 
their functioning ­ for instance, in the way one flowering plant blooms after 
another, so there is always a food supply for pollinators.

Global warming threatens these networks, he said. It changes timing cycles. It 
disconnects interactions.

In the face of the legion of changes precipitated by global warming, plus 
impacts from all the single cause-and-effect culprits, bees are reacting by 
leaving their hives and going off to die.

In the view of Harries-Jones, bees are offering a wake-up call to the 
possibility that global warming could unravel networks and lead to ecosystem 
collapse much sooner than collapse would occur because of drought or flooding, 
or some of its other physical effects.

In a small but important way, Bryan and Cathy Gilvesy are heeding this call 
without having specifically heard it.

They've noticed there are fewer bees on their Y U Ranch in Norfolk County, where
they raise Texas Longhorn cattle ­ so they are taking steps to create a stable 
food supply for wild bees.

They are part of an Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) pilot project, and are 
being paid a small sum to turn part of their land over to conservation.

The initiative got them thinking about bees, and so they planted two types of 
native clover and trefoil at the edge of a field. It was successful, and next 
spring they plan to expand the planting.

Wild bees are often solitary, Bryan says, and will nest in knotholes on old 
fence lines, and in dead trees. If they have reliable habitat, he hopes they 
will thrive. He speaks of bees with something approaching affection, recognizing
the work they do pollinating farm crops.

But there's something more.

He and Cathy simply care about other living things ­ and that's where you find 
the real beginnings of a ray of hope.

Cameron Smith can be reached at •••@••.•••

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