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Daily News Blog

14
Dec

Pollinator Disappearance Documented in Vermont, Confirming Insect Apocalypse

(Beyond Pesticides, December 14, 2018) The richness, diversity, and abundance of wild bumblebees in Vermont has plummeted over the last century, according to an analysis from researchers at the University of Vermont and Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE). This research adds fresh evidence to the growing realization that mankind is witnessing and contributing to, as the New York Times recently labeled, a worldwide insect apocalypse. “We’re losing bumblebees even before we fully understand their benefits to our economy and well-being, or how they fit into ecosystems,” said Kent McFarland, study coauthor and conservation biologist at VCE in a press release.

Researchers conducted surveys with the help of 53 trained citizen scientists. Alongside the researchers, these individuals surveyed bumblebee populations through a combination of photos of wild bees and net collections. In total, over 81% of the state’s municipalities were included in the survey, representing all of Vermont pollinator’s biophysical regions.

These data, consisting of over 10,000 bee encounters, were then compared to a database of almost 2,000 historical public and private insect collections amassed by researchers. With the first records beginning at 1915, scientists are able to compose a century-long assessment of pollinator populations in Vermont.

“These collections are priceless,” said coauthor Sara Zahendra of the historic bee collections used in the study. “Decades ago, students and biologists likely had no idea that some of the species they were collecting would completely disappear. Without these collections, we wouldn’t know how our bee populations have changed.”

According to the results, of the 17 bumblebee species considered native to Vermont, four showed evidence of significant declines, and four are simply not detected, leading researchers to the conclusion they are likely to be locally extinct.

Of note are two species, Bombus affinis, the rusty patched bumblebee, and Bombus ashtoni, the Ashton’s Cuckoo Bumblebee, which researchers found to be historically prevalent but locally extinct per the recent count. The rusty patched bumblebee was recently listed as endangered under the endangered species act, surviving a reevaluation of the decision by the Trump administration. “This investigation confirms our fear that the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee is almost certainly extinct in Vermont and may never be back,” said Mr. McFarland. “We hardly knew it – and now it’s gone.” Alongside the local extinction of the rusty patched is the extirpation of a dependent species, the Ashton’s Cuckoo, which survived by infiltrating rusty patched bumblebee colonies, and enslaving workers to feed its own young.

Researchers indicate that although some species, such as Bombus impatiens, the common eastern bumblebee are expanding in part due to their use as managed pollinators in agriculture, overall Vermont’s pollinators experienced significant declines in species richness (the number of different species found), abundance (the number of pollinators found), and diversity (a measure of species richness and relative abundance).

“Our next step is to move from investigation toward solutions,” said Mr. McFarland. “But those solutions will take hard work and partnerships among federal and state agencies, conservation research groups like ours, and the public.”

Overwhelming research indicates that neonicotinoids and other systemic insecticides are critical factors in the decline of both managed and native pollinator populations throughout the world. Neonicotinoid pesticides are particularly dangerous to bees because plants absorb them through the roots, rendering all plant parts toxic to insects,” said Leif Richardson, PhD, an ecologist with UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment and Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. “This includes pollen and nectar, essential components of the bee diet.”

The Vermont state legislature has begun to take steps to address the use of these pesticides as seed treatments, which put nearby wild and managed pollinators at risk of toxic dust drift during the planting process, but has failed to take a broader comprehensive response to the crisis as nearby Connecticut did in 2016.

The scope of this crisis cannot be underestimated. Evidence is mounting that pollinators are simply the canary in the coal mine – the most charismatic examples of an insect world that is experiencing apocalyptic levels of decline.

A recent New York Times article on this crisis provides a sober outlook from renown ecologist E.O Wilson:
“E.O. Wilson has written of an insect-free world, a place where most plants and land animals become extinct; where fungi explodes, for a while, thriving on death and rot; and where “the human species survives, able to fall back on wind-pollinated grains and marine fishing” despite mass starvation and resource wars. “Clinging to survival in a devastated world, and trapped in an ecological dark age,” he adds, “the survivors would offer prayers for the return of weeds and bugs.”

There is still time to change our trajectory. More than ever, individuals must connect with their local, state, and federal elected officials and demand changes that protect pollinators and other insect populations. As evidenced by Connecticut and Maryland, and dozens of local pollinator protection policies, concerted efforts by beekeepers and grassroots advocates can create lasting positive change.

For more information on how to get active in you state or community to safeguard pollinators, visit Beyond Pesticides’ Bee Protective webpage or give the office a call at 202-543-5450.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: Phys.Org, Journal of Insect Conservation

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