UI professor: Research shows disastrous decline in bee populations

UI professor: Research shows disastrous decline in bee populations

URBANA – Scientists know that bee populations are suffering disastrous drops in population, especially among domesticated bees useful in agriculture.

But a University of Illinois researcher has conducted the first in-depth national study of bumblebees in the wild, and she says the results are distressing.

Entomology professor Sydney Cameron said that bumblebees, which are critical in pollinating berries and hothouse tomatoes, have suffered declines in population and in their geographic range since record-keeping began in the late 1800s.

Cameron's two teams, one in the west centered at Utah State University, and one in the east, searched out museum and university collections for records of bumblebee population and diversity, then went into the wild over the course of three years.

They found that endangered bumblebee populations have lower genetic diversity than healthy species. Among the endangered species is Bombus pensylvanicus, once one of the most common bumblebees in the Midwest.

The endangered species are also likely to be infected with Nosema bombi, a fungal parasite.

Cameron said researchers have yet to prove a cause and effect relationship between the parasite and the decline, but the problem deserves further study.

Funguses are known to hurt frog and bat populations, she added.

The study, whose co-authors include Jeffrey D. Lozier and Leellen F. Solter, is in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The abstract of the study, "Patterns of Widespread Decline in North American Bumble Bees," is available online.

Cameron said the analysis found that populations of four of the eight species studied have declined by as much as 96 percent and their surveyed geographic ranges have shrunk as much as 87 percent.

"We have 50 species of bumblebees in North America. We've studied eight of them and four of these are significantly in trouble," said Cameron, who led the study. "They could potentially recover; some of them might. But we only studied eight. This could be the tip of the iceberg," she said.

The study looked at eight species of bumblebees in the U.S., relying on historical records. One of them is now extinct or heading in that direction, the professor said.

The researchers compiled a database of more than 73,000 museum records, then went into the field to get more than 16,000 specimens from about 400 sites.

"Because it was a conservation mission, we released the bees we didn't need," she said.

Some of these contractions have occurred in the last two decades.

Cameron said people should be aware of the decline as a loss to nature and to the agricultural industry.

She encourages people to plant native species that can provide habitat for the big bees.

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