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Why Save Wild Bees: Do You Like Tomatoes?

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Bees land on a flower in Laqlouq village, Lebanon, in this June 27, 2015 file photo. Bees and other pollinators face increasing risks to their survival, threatening foods such as apples, blueberries and coffee worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year, the first global assessment of pollinators showed on February 26, 2016.
Bees on a flower: Specific bee species may pollinate specific flowers. They're not interchangeable. Credit: Jamal Said, Reuters

Before Israel's love for honey kills off all its wild bees, environmentalists are urging the government to constrain a pending bill. Unchanged, it would free the Honey Production and Marketing Board to place beehives wherever it pleases, to increase the domesticated honeybee population. The scientists want the government to forbid bees to be farmed anywhere near nature reserves and parks. 

The problem is that wild bees are already under stress from a host of factors. Even more competition with the domesticated honeybee in the shrinking habitats could be the straw that breaks the camel's back, leading to local extinctions, explains Prof. Tamar Keasar of Haifa University.

A group of scientists and environmentalists therefore are begging parliament to let the environment-minded Israeli Nature and Parks Authority to control where honeybee hives are placed.

"The council's exclusive interest is to produce as much honey as possible," explains Dr. Achik Dorchin, a postdoctoral student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and coauthor of the position paper advocating for wild bees. "They want there to be no limitation on 'grazing' by honeybees. They have no concern for nature."

But before Israel's leaders vote on a law, he urges, Israel's decision-makers need to understand what's at stake, which includes the humble tomato.

Tomato extinction threat?

In contrast to rats, for instance, bees are not doing well in the modern world. Surveys over time in Western Europe and North America show substantial decline of bee populations.

There are no long-term records for the rest of the world to see whether bees are doing better, worse or muddling along. Israel does not have records either, Keasar tells Haaretz.  That said, a survey done 15 years ago and a recent one indicate that – at the sampled spots in Israel – the prevalence of domesticated honeybees had increased from 30% to 70%.

We cannot be sure that the doubled population of honeybees necessarily diminished the populations of wild bees, Keasar agrees. Maybe the wild bees changed their habits – the time of day they forage for pollen and nectar. Or maybe they adopted other plants, she says. What we do know is that wild bees are crucial for the ecology and for human nourishment itself.

The thing is that some bees are generalizers. Honey bees tend to be jacks of all trades. See nectar, eat, pollinate. But they cannot "do" all plants. Other bees are fussy specialists, and if they go extinct, so will the plant.  

Nocturnal plants are a good example: they would only be pollinated by bees that operate either at dawn, dusk or in the wee hours.

Famously, such is the lot of the tomato. It cannot be trivially pollinated by just any bee, says Keasar: "We need wild bees for the niches where domestic bees won't go. Tiny flowers and exotic cacti are like that too."

Also, like in most aspects of life, relying on a single answer is a bad idea. The single answer, for instance relying solely on the honeybee while allowing other bee species to go extinct, could end nature as we know it.

The Cavendish banana, a single species now feeding most of the world, is facing exactly that problem: a disease devastating the Cavendish, but not other banana species, in plantations around the world. "If you cultivate domestic bees and ignore all else, bad things can happen," Keasar summarizes.

In the nature reserve with Plant and Bee

So, the state of Israeli wild bees is a great unknown. It is known that Israel has or had an extraordinary 1,100 species of wild bees, which is a lot. Indeed, honey has been popular in the region going back almost 10,000 years.

But given the stresses devastating bee populations in Europe and North America (elsewhere the state of wild bees has not been researched), possibly including viruses - the working assumption is that the Israeli wild bee is in terrible danger too, Keasar explains. Therefore, it needs all the protection it can get.

The law proposes constraining the placement of honeybee hives near national parks and nature reserves. Given that bees can fly wherever they please, Haaretz wondered how that would help.

Dorchin explains. "It is true that wild bees exist outside the nature parks, indeed sometimes there are a lot of them.  But by nature, there are more in protected open spaces. Parks and nature reserves have a wider variety of plants, especially rare ones, and also of wild bee species."

Yes,  some plant and bee species exist only in the nature reserves now, he says.

So what's the solution? " I would love to protect bees outside too," Dorchin mourns, and turns pragmatic. "I understand limitations. So we suggest focusing on protected areas, where the parks authority has the mandate to protect nature." The solution: a 2-kilometer-wide buffer zone around natural areas featuring rare plants and bees where nary a honeybee may legally set up home.

Industrious worker bees laden with nectar or pollen can collect up to 10 kilometers away, but that's rare, he elaborates. The role of the 2-kilometer buffer zone would be to reduce the density of honeybees, not to eliminate them in the parks entirely.

Among other things, the law would require monitoring of wild bees, which is a good thing. In ten years time, Keasar adds, we will know what their state is. And how much help they need from the Israeli legislator to overcome the horrific strains they face, from massive loss of habitat to exposure to pesticides to, it seems, new viruses and mites.

How exactly would constraining the placement of domestic honeybee hives help the plight of the wild bee?

"Each small stress accrues," says Keasar. "The more we reduce the stressors, the better for the bee. Competition with domesticated honeybees may not be the wild bees' main problem, but it could be another straw on the camel's back."

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