By Elias Marat
While the role played by honeybees and wild bees as important pollinators is well known, the bumblebee also plays a crucial role in maintaining the health and viability of crops such as chili peppers and tomatoes.
And now, researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) are sounding the alarm that bumblebees are also at risk of extinction—and their disappearance could also mean the disappearance of vegetables that form a crucial staple in the country’s diet.
Adriana Correa, the head of UNAM’s Department of Medicine and Zootechnics of Bees, Rabbits and Aquatic Organisms, notes that while many people are afraid of the big, fuzzy and loud insects, bumblebees are crucial for the preservation of a range of plant species.
Correa also notes that bumblebees, which are dispersed in “practically all” of the 32 states in the Mexican Republic, play a key role in the reproduction of the two native vegetables that form the backbone of Mexico’s celebrated national cuisine: chili and tomatoes.
And while Mexican food was recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010, the threat to bumblebees could radically alter the traditional Mexican diet.
In other words, those delicious enchiladas, chilaquiles, and the salsas we pour all over our tacos may become a thing of the past.
Correa noted that if bumblebees go extinct, “we may not starve in four years, but our eating habits will change dramatically.”
And if those vegetables disappear, the effect on the food chain would be devastating for those animals who feed on the plant—rendering them extinct as well. According to Correa, half of all plant species and 75 percent of the products consumed by human populations, including meat, could disappear.
Various studies from across the world have linked the overuse of pesticides such as neonicotinoids, to the decline of indispensable pollinators like bees and butterflies, as well as birds, aquatic life, various insect species, and even some small mammals.
In the Midwest and East Coast of the U.S., the rusty patched bumblebee has disappeared from 87 percent of its historic range spanning 28 states and declined in population size by over 90 percent since the 1990s, according to scientists. The once-common pollinator wasn’t given protection until 2017 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally designated the species endangered.
U.S. government agencies like the EPA and the general scientific community have sounded the alarm over Colony Collapse Disorder afflicting bee populations across the globe. Correa has pointed to five key factors in the health of bee colonies: climate change, pesticides, diseases and parasites, agricultural conditions, and the need for beekeepers to maintain healthy bee colonies.
The professor noted that the food industry’s over-reliance on pesticides and other agro-industrial chemicals continue to pose a deadly threat to native plants and animals in Mexico.
Not only are birds, mammals, and insects bearing the brunt of the food industry’s addiction to bee-killing pesticides but “everything that is beautiful on our planet” is also threatened, she added.
If people want to directly help bumblebees and wild bees survive as a species, Correa recommends that we return to smaller-scale agriculture and gardening that isn’t laden with the toxic chemicals and insecticides driving pollinator declines.
We have a lot to do: we can plant potted plants and even tend our own gardens, because these activities also help us to have healthier, more nutritional quality foods.