Bees are dying in frightening numbers, and we don’t know why. If this trend continues unchecked, the world’s agricultural crops and the people who depend on them are in real trouble. Thankfully, researchers have discovered a new clue that might help us avoid this fate.
Bees, it seems, faced extinction once before but staged an impressive comeback. Researchers believe that 65 million years ago, bees essentially disappeared at about the same time the dinosaurs did. Somehow, though, bees managed to survive on Earth when the mighty dinosaurs could not.
This news is the finding of a new study published in the journal PLOS One. The researchers hope that their effort to understand how bees managed to rebound so successfully might help us determine how to keep them from going extinct a second time.
“Understanding extinctions and the effects of declines in the past can help us understand the pollinator decline and the global crisis in pollinators today,” the study’s lead author, Sandra Rehan, told ScienceBlog.com.
Rehan, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of New Hampshire, and her team studied the DNA of four groups containing 230 species of carpenter bees from every continent except Antarctica. They were hoping to understand how bee populations from Africa, Asia and Australia were related on an evolutionary level. What they learned was something entirely different.
Studies done by others have indicated that flowering plants experienced widespread extinction at the same time the dinosaurs disappeared. Until now, scientists assumed this had to mean that bees died off along with them.
“[U]nlike dinosaurs that have left plentiful fossils, bees don’t fossilize well, so their presence in the fossil record is very patchy,” Mike Schwartz, collaborator for the study, told ABC Science. “There are large numbers of bees found in 45 million year old amber, but not much before that.”
Comparing the evidence they gathered on bees from different major continents convinced the research team that something similar happened to bees, regardless of their location.
“The data told us something major was happening in four different groups of bees at the same time,” Rehan said. “And it happened to be the same time as the dinosaurs went extinct.”
Interestingly, according to Schwartz, the demise of dinosaurs, flowering plants and bees occurred during a period of great climate change. He suspects that perhaps this information may offer insight into how climate change may factor into the current bee die-off.
When all is said and done, the good news is that it appears bees went mostly or completely extinct and now, somehow, they’re back. Bees are resilient little fellows.
What’s the bad news? Rehan’s team believes bees were extinct for about 10 million years before they somehow reversed course and returned. If we lose them now, we can’t wait that long for them.
“Bees have gone through hard times, and negative effects have occurred. We can maybe learn from the past, and learn how pollinators and plants respond to natural disturbances,” Rehan suggested. ”If we can understand what happened in the past, it can help us understand the current perturbations and loss of diversification.”
The loss of bees would devastate the world’s food supplies. It would be remarkable if we survived it. After all, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bees pollinate at least 75 percent of the vegetables, fruit and nuts grown in the U.S.
There’s no backup plan for pollination if there are no bees. Humans cannot pollinate artificially to the extent bees can. Extinction of bees due to colony collapse disorder therefore most likely would mean the extinction of us, too.
Bees, little friends, here’s hoping you’re really the Comeback Kids that scientists believe you are. Let’s hope they can figure out a way to help you survive — again. The Earth needs you.