High flyers – but what’s the buzz really about?

Final designIn preparation for the Sochi Olympics, many athletes would have undergone gruelling exercise regimes at high altitudes. The idea behind such training is that by acclimatising to lower oxygen availability, athletes can improve their oxygen-carrying capacity and endurance. But training at high altitudes and then suddenly switching to low altitudes – where air density can greatly affect speed – can also be detrimental. It’s been suggested this is the reason for the poor performance of the American speed skaters in Sochi.

Like athletes training in high altitudes and alpine terrains, animals living in these conditions also need to adapt. Recently, a study showed that alpine bumblebees can fly higher than Mount Everest. They coped with both the decreased air density and oxygen availability in a way that would impress any Olympic athlete. The bumblebees adapted to the thin air at high altitudes by swinging their wings through a wider arc.

Although this is impressive, it is not what the bee world is buzzing about these days. There is a decline in bee populations around the world, in both the well known domesticated honeybee, as well as wild bees. In some parts of China, pollination must now be done by hand as there are so few bees left. In Canada, the nation wide honeybee mortality rose to 28.6% last winter, double that of the previous year. Although these numbers are alarming, they only pertain to the honeybee, a species introduced to North America.

There are over 800 species of bees in Canada, and over 20,000 worldwide. These native pollinators have been pollinating our continent’s flowering plants since long before the arrival of honeybees. The former are much more difficult to track compared to the domesticated honeybee, but there is evidence to show that native bee populations are also in decline. For example, the rusty-patched bumblebee is a newly listed endangered species in Canada and the first federally listed bee in North America.

Pollinators allow nearly 70 percent of all flowering plants to reproduce, and the fruits and seeds from insect-pollinated plants account for over 30 percent of the foods and beverages that we consume. Native bees are crucial for pollinating our flora. The causes of the bee declines are still unclear, but are likely to be from a combination of pesticide use, habitat loss and disease. It is therefore important that research continues to help understand how to conserve these very important invertebrates. Our very own Liber Ero Fellow, Sheila Colla, has taken up the plight of the bumblebees. You can also help, by planting native nectar rich plants to attract pollinators, making your own bee house, becoming a bee keeper and volunteering for monitoring programs, such as the pollinator observer program run by Pollination Canada.

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