While people have been confined to their homes this spring, wildlife has faced less human disturbance, traffic and polluting fumes. In Israel, wild boar are venturing further into the city of Haifa than before, while dolphins are increasingly braving the Bosphorus, the Turkish narrows that normally serves as a busy shipping route.
One animal that could see a much-needed revival is the wild bee, scientists say. Bee populations are rapidly declining around the world due to habitat loss, pollution and the use of pesticides, among other factors.
“These creatures are vital to what we eat and what our countryside looks like,” says Gill Perkins, chief executive of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. “They provide a whole ecosystem service.”
A world without bees would look very different and change our lives enormously. Bees are the world’s most important pollinators, fertilising a third of the food we eat and 80% of flowering plants. Bees and other pollinating insects have a global economic value of around £120bn ($150bn) and contribute around £690m ($850m) to the UK economy every year, according to a study by the University of Reading.
One of the biggest environmental impacts of the global shutdown has been the significant reduction in air pollution.
In a world with less air pollution, bees can make shorter and more profitable ‘shopping trips’, and this may help them rear more young – Mark Brown
Less fumes from cars on the road makes it easier for bees to forage, as air pollution substantially reduces the strength and longevity of floral scents, according to a 2016 study. Pollutants break down scent molecules emitted by plants, making it harder for bees to detect food. This means they often end up flying further to find food and bring it back to their nests. Ozone concentrations of 60 parts per billion, which the US Environmental Protection Agency classes as “low”, was enough to cause chemical changes that confused bees and prevented them from foraging efficiently, the study found.
“In a world with less air pollution, bees can make shorter and more profitable ‘shopping trips’, and this may help them rear more young,” says Mark Brown, professor of evolutionary ecology at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Fewer cars on the roads means other benefits for bees too. The number of bee deaths is likely to fall as car journeys decrease during lockdown, Brown notes. A 2015 study by Canadian researchers estimated that 24 billion bees and wasps are killed by vehicles on roads across North America every year.
And as UK councils are tightening their purse strings due to coronavirus, many have stopped maintaining road verges which have turned into lush habitats as a result. “This unexpected profusion of flowers may well be another benefit for bees, with the unexpected food they provide boosting bee populations,” Brown says.
Ecologists in the UK have been calling on councils to allow verges to run wild for years, running campaigns such as “Don’t mow, let it grow.”
Brown suggests that councils may now be discovering both the financial and environmental benefits of not cutting back verges during lockdown, and could continue the practice once restrictions are lifted.
But a break for wild bees doesn’t mean it’s a good time for honey. Commercial beekeepers and farmers who rely on them to pollinate their crops are struggling because of travel restrictions.
Commercial beekeepers in Canada and many European countries depend heavily on seasonal workers and on importing queen bees from around the world to replenish their colonies, according to Jeff Pettis, president of Apimondia, the international federation of beekeepers. The UK, for example, gets many of its queen honey bees from Italy. Usually the bees are transported by plane, but since flights have been grounded they are being driven across the continent, says Pettis. “If beekeepers can’t find the labour to produce honey, the colonies will get congested,” he says. That means the bees split and swarm earlier to form new colonies, making management difficult for the beekeepers.
This could have serious knock-on effects for arable farmers, as commercial travelling hives are often relied upon for crop pollination. In the US, bees pollinate an estimated $15bn (£12.3bn) of crops every year, including almonds, courgettes and melons, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Take the Californian almond; around two million bee colonies are needed for California’s almond production alone. Almond trees flower in February and March, and by April the visiting commercial hives have usually been moved to other parts of the country to pollinate different crops. This relocation has taken longer this year as some drivers have been told to self-quarantine for 14 days when crossing state borders. “It has been a little dicey,” says Pettis.
In the US, commercial travelling bee hives are heavily relied upon to pollinate crops such as the Californian almond (Credit: Getty Images)
While things could temporarily be looking up for the wild bee, travel restrictions have hampered conservationists’ efforts to gather data on how they are doing. Typically, large insect surveys are carried out by scientists every spring. But the UK’s Bumblebee Conservation Trust has suspended its BeeWalks, monthly surveys by volunteers to count the number of bumblebees across the country.
“It is not an essential journey so we have asked people to not do those walks. We have not been able to do the data collection,” says Perkins.
People are beginning to realise how their mental health and wellbeing is supported by nature – particularly by bumblebees – Gill Perkins
Instead, ecologists and conservation groups have called on the wider public to help them gather scientific data during this time. “Citizen science” is vital while official surveys are suspended, according to ecologist Claire Carvell who runs the UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme. Anyone can participate in the scheme by completing what is known as a Flower-Insect Timed Count (FIT Count). This involves monitoring a small patch of flowers in your garden for 10 minutes, counting the number of insects you see and filling in an online form.
“The survey can be done by anyone who has a patch of flowers and a few minutes to spare,” says Carvell, adding that the citizen science campaign is “really creating a buzz” this year. In April, 250 FIT Counts were submitted online – more than double the number received at the same time last year. “People are enjoying the opportunity to do something a bit more structured with their time,” Carvell says, adding that she has received data from all across the UK, covering a much wider area than scientists usually reach.
So as well as giving wild bees themselves a temporary respite, bee specialists are hopeful that increased awareness and engagement with bees could be a boon for conservation. But, like with all the other environmental changes we’re seeing now, any long-term benefits for bees would depend on these changes being carried forward as lockdowns lift. For some, like leaving verges wild, the change may not be so hard to maintain. For others, like keeping traffic volumes low, the changes would need to be more systemic.
One change that Perkins anticipates carrying forward, though, is people’s reconnection with nature. “They are beginning to realise how their mental health and wellbeing is supported by nature – particularly by bumblebees, which are so iconic and beautiful and buzzy,” she says. “I hope that remains after lockdown.”