Plight of the bumblebee: Science offers a way to save this vital pollinator


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The Independent Online

Pity the poor bumblebee. Its very name invokes the awkwardness of the aerodynamically challenged. Yet it is a highly successful pollinating insect and our pity should rather be directed at our own miserable if unwitting efforts to wipe it out, and with it a vital part of our food chain.

An impressive international study has convincingly demonstrated just how dire the life of the bumblebee has become over the past half century of rapidly rising global temperatures. Scientists have unequivocally linked increasing temperatures to the squeezing of the bumblebee habitat in a sort of “climate vice”.

What is most disturbing about this study of 67 bumblebee species living on two continents, Europe and North America, is that while the southern boundaries of many bees have been pushed further north, the northern boundaries have remained largely as they were, hence the vice-like grip on bumblebee populations.

For some inexplicable reason, our bumbling garden friends have not been willing or able to fly further north to expand their range as their southern habitats have shrunk. This has come as a surprise, even given the apparently limited flying ability of this key pollinator of economically important fruit and vegetable crops.

This has led some scientists to suggest a little help in the form of “assisted migration”, a relatively new concept in biology to help embattled species cope at least temporarily with encroaching climate change. It will involve moving some members of a species into new, cooler habitats further north of the normal home range.

Of course, the trouble with such a technological fix is that it is treating the symptom rather than the cause. All our experience with invasive species, from the grey squirrel to Japanese knot weed, suggests extreme caution with any such undertaking.

However, desperate times may require desperate remedies – especially as time appears to be fast running out for our bumbling, buzzing hairy friend.