By Linda Scales
“Bumblebees are declining incredibly fast,” says Professor Jeremy Kerr, University Research Chair in Macroecology and Conservation Biology at the University of Ottawa. He was commenting on the results of his research, which studied 67 species of bumblebees across North America and Europe and how climate change is critically affecting them. Kerr's cross-continental research is the first-ever analysis of how a large group of pollinators is responding to climate change. The research was published in Science magazine last week.
While bumblebees and honeybees resemble each other in appearance, “bumblebees are the great big bees you see visiting flowers in your garden,” said Kerr, while honeybees are “like kept animals … like goats and sheep.” Both are pollinators, but the bumblebees’ purpose is broader than other bees and is vital for world food security and the economy. “Widespread losses of pollinators due to climate change will diminish both.”
As lead researcher, Kerr and his uOttawa team of 10 undergraduate, master's, PhD and post-doctoral researchers, “put [their] hearts and souls over a period of years” into this study, which also discovered a new biological mechanism that explains how species may respond to climate change based on their evolutionary past.
Using long-term observations from 1901 to 2010, Kerr’s comprehensive analysis found that unlike other species that expand their range northward in response to warming trends, bumblebees are, in fact, doing the exact opposite. Kerr's research proves that bumblebees are not relocating to other areas and have lost about 300 km of their native range in southern Europe and North America.
“We need to figure out how we can improve the outlook for pollinators,” said Kerr, who is also a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Ottawa.
How to help bumblebees is a complex question that merits discussion. It could mean transplanting bumblebee populations into more northerly areas of Europe and North America, or seeking out sheltered microclimates in southern zones where they could thrive, or even doing more to help the current southern populations. However, Kerr says that the best solution of all is to reduce the rate of climate change.
Even individuals can do their part to help bumblebee populations. Bumble Bee Watch, a concurrent extension of Kerr’s cross-continental bee research, is an ongoing and successful model of citizen science that provides further information on bumblebees. Kerr also encourages people to plant flowers that pollinators love, such as Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans and Echinacea, in their gardens.