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Shifting bee seasons could disrupt pollination

Spring is coming earlier for wild bees in the Northeast. This could have serious ecological consequences if bee seasons go out of sync with plant seasons.

Wild bees are important plant pollinators. Although the European honeybee is the most common species used in agriculture, many other non-domesticated bee species exist in North America. Some of these wild species emerge in the spring, once the weather gets warm, rather than working year-round like the European honeybee. Now that increasing temperatures in the U.S. are shifting the timing and duration of the seasons, however, these seasonal bees are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
 
A little over a year ago, the Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences published an investigation into when wild bees appear in the spring. Over the past one hundred and thirty years, the start of springtime for wild bees in the American northeast has apparently shifted—it now occurs about ten days earlier than it used to. At the same time, the flowering seasons for plants of the same region have also shifted to be earlier. Although the two trends track each other closely, the authors of the study warn that the two cycles have the potential to be thrown off balance. This could happen if the pace of temperature change happens too fast, causing the bees to emerge well before the plants are ready to be pollinated. The most dramatic shifts in the timing of bee seasons have all occurred since 1970, paralleling climate change and hence indicating that climate change is part of the cause. This trend could continue further, according to the authors and scientists from Rutgers, Cornell, the University of Connecticut, York University, and the American Museum of Natural History.
 
This finding heightens the sense of urgency around climate change in the U.S. If temperatures change too rapidly, there could be a serious disruption in the timing of bee activity and flowering seasons. It will be important for future studies to better understand how specific wild bee species interact with particular plants so that management plans can be created.

 
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Original Paper

Ignasi Bartomeus, John S. Ascher, David Wagner, Bryan N. Danforth, Sheila Colla, Sarah Kornbluth, Rachel Winfree, “Climate-associated phonological advances in bee pollinators and bee-pollinated plants,”Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, no. 51 (2011), 20645-20649. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1115559108
 

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