Bees akin to canaries in a coal mine for climate change, researcher says

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New research from Adelaide’s Flinders University has found that bees will play important part in future food security due to their sensitivity to changes in climate.

Scott Groom, PhD student at Flinders University has engaged mathematical modelling to identify changes in bee populations over the past 20,000 years across the South Pacific region and says that exceptionally large declines in bee populations coincided with changes in temperature, ABC News reports.

“We see a really large decline in bee populations that coincides with the last glacial maximum (ice age), at which time we had lowering sea levels and everything getting much cooler and drier," he said.

"[Bees are] key pollinators in almost all terrestrial ecosystems and there's a really tight relationship there for them to influence ecosystems positively.

"If you see these changes in bee populations you can infer changes in the flowering plants of those regions as well, so they're really important from biodiversity’s perspective. In more recent times they're also very important for human populations because they also pollinate crops and things that are important for food security."

Groom says that prior to the ice age when temperatures rose, many bee species migrated to cooler areas, with only one hardy species able to adapt to the warmer temperature. 

"They're almost canaries in the coal mine, you can see that they're going to be the first sort of species to be impacted by changes in climate," Groom said.

"…The species that are found in these lower elevations have shown this plasticity to change and they're the ones we really want to utilise in terms of agriculture because they are generalist pollinators and are found through the archipelagos [of the South Pacific].

"By trying to understand their general biology, we can try to ensure that their populations are at their highest around agricultural crops so that we can use them as almost insurance against these declines that we're seeing in honey bee populations, which is our number one crop pollinator."

The study titled; Parallel responses of bees to Pleistocene climate change in three isolated archipelagos of the Southwestern Pacific, has been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.