Bees are amongst the most crucial pollinators in the world and are critical for the success of our food crops. In fact, bees and other pollinators are responsible for the pollination of 87% of all flowering plant species (Lerman, 2018). However, due to the changes that humans have imposed on the environment through land use and agricultural practices, we see declines in both the numbers and diversity of bees (Nicholson, 2017). Recent evidence has been compiled to show that the composition of agricultural fields, tillage and lawn mowing frequency can significantly affect bee population size and diversity by directly affecting floral diversity.
Agricultural fields can see more bee abundances and diversity with more floral diversity
The role of bees in the pollination of our food crops is essential to the success of global food production and feeding people around the world (Photo M. Cadotte).
Studies have shown that increasing floral diversity in agriculture can increase the size and diversity of bee populations attracted to those fields. In fact, one experiment looked at the correlation between floral diversity and population growth in stingless social bees (Kaluza, 2018). Their results indicate a positive correlation between floral diversity and bee population growth. They attribute this positive correlation with the continuous food supply available in florally diverse environments. In monocultures, all plants bloom around the same time period thus providing a narrow time interval in which bees would have sufficient food for population growth. A more diverse agricultural system would be accompanied by a larger range of blooming periods thus providing the food needed for bee populations to grow. Another experiment conducted in the vineyards of Austria came to a similar conclusion. This experiment also found that forage availability is the most significant factor to affect species richness in wild bees (Kratschmer, 2018). These findings indicate that we can promote bee diversity through diversifying the variety of floral plants in and around agricultural fields.
Another factor that indirectly affects bee population sizes and diversity is human activity in the form of soil tillage. In the study above conducted on the Austrian vineyards, the experimenters also compared the effects of no-tillage to alternating tillage and found that alternating tillage displayed slightly increased wild bee abundance and diversity relative to a no-tillage environment (Kratschmer, 2018). In this experiment no tillage was defined as a vineyard that had not undergone tillage in 5 or more years and alternating tillage was defined as a vineyard where every other row was tilled 1-3 times a year. The reasoning behind why more diversity and numbers of bees were found in alternating tillage sites was because those sites displayed higher forage availability and increased flowering plant species richness in comparison to untilled soils. Although the study found that directly increasing floral diversity had a higher impact on bee diversity, it should not be overlooked that soil tillage can also increase bee diversity and that these findings can open future research into the impacts that other steps in agriculture have on bee diversity.
Outside of agricultural practices, how often homeowners mow their lawns also affects bee biodiversity and numbers by affecting floral diversity. A study put this to the test by mowing lawns either once, twice or three times a week (Lerman, 2018). Their study revealed that mowing lawns less frequently led to increased bee biodiversity and abundance. They observed that lawns that were mowed every 3 weeks had 2.5 times more flowers than the ones mowed every 1 or 2 weeks thus providing more vital resources to bees. They suggest that homeowners minimize the frequency at which they mow their lawns to benefit bee conservation efforts by allowing for the growth of more flowers on their lawn. This shows that everyday people outside the agricultural industry can also help conserve bee diversity.
Recently, Walmart has filed for a patent on autonomous robotic bees as a solution to the dwindling bee population, but this approach is not as feasible as preserving current bee diversity and making changes to promote their population growth (Potts, 2018). The economic cost of manufacturing and running these robotic bees to sustain our global food crops would be hundreds of billions of dollars. Comparatively, the pollination services by bees and other insects that are free of cost have a monetary value of over 200 million Canadian dollars (Kratschmer, 2018). It is more financially feasible to fund efforts to promote bee diversity through diversifying our agricultural systems than to build and operate these robotic bees. Moreover, robotic bees would also not be able to sufficiently capture the diverse traits possessed by various bee species to efficiently pollinate specific types of flowers. The time and resources needed to fine-tune traits which have already been perfected over years of natural selection in real bees into robots would be put to better use towards conserving and growing our bee populations.
Although it is important to acknowledge that our actions are partly to blame for the decline in bee diversity over the years, it is also important to realize that we can make changes to enhance bee diversity from here on. These studies have shown that bee diversity can be improved by increasing floral diversity through diversifying the vegetation in and around our crops, coupled with homeowners reducing the number of times they mow their lawns and further investigating how various steps in agriculture like tillage can affect bee diversity. With this in mind, it is critical that future funding is put towards conserving bee diversity rather than towards replacing them with robotic bees.
Kaluza, B. F. (2018). Social bees are fitter in more biodiverse environments. Scientific Reports, 8. doi:https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-30126-0
Kratschmer, S. (2018). Tillage intensity or landscape features: What matters most for wild bee diversity in vineyards? Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 266, 142. doi:10.1016/j.agee.2018.07.018
Lerman, S. B. (2018). To mow or to mow less: Lawn mowing frequency affects bee abundance and diversity in suburban yards. Biological Conservation, 221, 160. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2018.01.025
Nicholson, C. C. (2017). Farm and landscape factors interact to affect the supply of pollination services. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 250, 113. doi:10.1016/j.agee.2017.08.030
Potts, S. G. (2018). Robotic bees for crop pollination: Why drones cannot replace biodiversity. Science of the Total Environment, 642, 665-667. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.06.114