Buzz Kill: Hundreds of European Bee Species Threatened With Extinction

Researchers say more than 60 percent of the continent’s bee species may be in decline owing to pesticides, industrial farming, and climate change.
(Photo: Darren Staples/Reuters)
Mar 26, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Are we about to see a pollinator apocalypse in Europe?

That’s the buzz from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which has just released a report warning that at least 9.2 percent of Europe’s 1,965 wild bee species are threatened with extinction. Another 5.2 percent, the report found, are likely to be threatened in the future. But researchers warn that more than 60 percent of European bees could be in trouble.

The major factors putting these bees at risk include habitat loss, insecticides, fertilizer (which suppresses flowering plants in favor of grasses), and climate change.

Most of these problems stem from the rise of industrial agriculture in Europe. Ironically, bees are essential in agriculture and provide approximately $24 billion in pollination services in Europe every year and $167 billion worldwide.

“It is true that agriculture presents a key threat to many species, not just bees,” said Angelika Pullen, a spokesperson for the IUCN’s European Union office in Belgium. “This is often counterproductive as it harms essential ecosystem services, such as pollination, soil, and water quality.”

Simon Potts, coordinator for the IUCN's Status and Trends of European Pollinators project, said in a statement that helping wild bee populations benefits wildlife, improves food production, and preserves the natural beauty that people have come to expect. “We must not forget that most of our wildflowers and crops are pollinated by a whole range of different bee species,” he said.

Even though the study found that around 200 European bee species face possible extinction, the IUCN said that may be the tip of the iceberg. The study was not able to assess the health of more than half of Europe’s bee species and classified them as “data deficient.”

That doesn’t mean they’re in the clear.

“It is likely that many of the data-deficient species are in fact threatened with extinction,” Pullen said. The IUCN calculated that if all of the data-deficient species are at risk, then the number of threatened bee species in Europe could be higher than 60 percent.

The high level of data-deficient bee species in Europe is not an aberration, as most bee species around the world are poorly studied.

“In the United States, we know even less about our native bee fauna than Europe does,” said Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Insect Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “We’ve got 4,000 species of native bees in North America, and we don’t really know much about most of them.”

The only species regularly studied in North America, he said, is the western honeybee, which is not native to the continent.

Many of the species the IUCN identified as at risk were probably rare to begin with and live in extremely small ranges. Southern Europe and the countries along the Mediterranean Sea have high levels of bee biodiversity, with some areas playing host to more than 100 species. Other areas, such as islands in the Mediterranean, have high levels of “range-restricted” bees, although each island only holds a few species.

The problem, however, is not restricted to these “rare endemics.” Many species with wider ranges are also disappearing.

“We’re also seeing declines in pollinator species that were once common,” Black said.

The report offers a range of recommendations for helping Europe’s bees and, in the process, the agricultural industry that depends on them. Proposals include targeting specific bee species for conservation, preserving key habitats, and establishing agricultural policies that would benefit bees, such as encouraging farmers to provide diverse crops of flowering plants that would serve as food for local bees. The report also calls for expanding the pool of academic and government experts who can study bees, especially the data-deficient species.

Even with the high level of data-deficient bee species, the IUCN and its partners in the EU say it’s time to move forward. “We certainly know enough to justify taking urgent action now,” said Pullen.