The dark side of biodiversity: wild bees at risk of extinction

When we talk about protection of biodiversity, we cannot compartmentalise, nor rank: both the environment and animal species go hand in hand, both intricately linked, an essential combination that man has a moral duty to protect. Unfortunately our often-good intentions are not followed by effective deeds, and today we are facing the alarming news: almost one in 10 of Europe’s wild bees are threatened with extinction.

The alarm of IUCN and STEP

The urgency surrounding the issue of the protection of wild bees has been brought to public attention through an investigation (Red List of Bees) by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and the STEP project (Status and Trends of European Pollinators), culminating in the ‘first-ever’ assessment of all European wild bee species, which was published as a report last month. The European Commission funded both projects.

The report summarises the investigation’s findings related to the 1,965 species of wild bees living in Europe: their status, distribution, population trends and threats. The result is not encouraging: 9.2% of European wild bees are threatened with extinction, while 5.2% are considered ‘likely to be threatened’ in the near future. In a further blow, the researchers were unable to evaluate the extinction risk of 56.6% of the species, as “insufficient data” was compiled due to lack of experts, information and funding. Insufficient data was also available to properly assess the status of the Western honeybee because today it’s difficult to distinguish between ‘domesticated’ bees and those that are truly wild.

Bees, bumble bees and pollination: risk factors and possible corrective action

Other key pollinators working alongside the Western honeybees – the principal architects of pollination in Europe – include bees from the Apidae family, and a few varieties of pollinating wasps. Their delicate operation helps maintain the equilibrium of Europe’s biodiversity.

Bees provide pollination services to around 70% of the world’s plant species and support crops accounting for 35% of global agricultural production volumes. Furthermore, 84% of the main crops grown for human consumption in Europe, such as fruit, vegetables and nuts, require insect pollination to enhance product quality and yields. Our quality of life depends on them. That’s why we must be aware of the many threats these species face from just man alone. As indicated by STEP and IUCN, the main threat to wild bees is loss of habitat as a result of changes in agricultural practices, their report summary explains: “Large-scale loss and degradation of bee habitats is one of the main threats to their survival. This is mostly caused by intensive agriculture and changing farming practices, such as a concentration on silage production at the expense of hay-cropping, and the extensive use of insecticides and fertilisers.” Other important risk factors highlighted in the report include climate change, urban sprawl and fires.

Which brake might be used, then, to remedy an already unfavourable situation? Surely we must implement a change to today’s agriculture practices and do all we can to special care of our bees. We must also strengthen the tools provided to those who study these wonderful animals. Our future depends on it.