July 9, 2015 2:00 pm
Updated: July 10, 2015 9:22 am

Climate change killing off bumblebees at alarming rate: study

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WATCH: The devastating impacts of climate change are having an effect on wild bee populations. Bumblebees are disappearing fast because of shifting weather patterns, according to new research. As Mike Le Couteur reports, the loss of bee species spells trouble for our food supply.

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TORONTO –  A new study has concluded that the alarming decline in bumblebee populations in North America and Europe isn’t solely due to the use of pesticides, but yet another troubling global issue: climate change.

The study, published in the July 10 edition of the journal Science, examined more than 420,000 records of different species of bumblebees and found that these important pollinators are in a serious and rapid decline due to our changing climate.

READ MORE: Doctors, nurses call for ban on pesticides that many see are killing bees


WATCH: Animation illustrates the rapid decline in a bee population

The researchers also examined 110 years of records — from 1901 to 2010 — and concluded that the bees have lost about 300 km from the southern edge of their range in North America and Europe. The rates of loss are about nine kilometres a year from those southern areas and are consistent across both continents.

“This was a surprise,” said Leif Richardson, a scientist at the University of Vermont and co-author of the study. “The bees are losing range on their southern margin and failing to pick up territory at the northern margin — so their habitat range is shrinking.”

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While other species are learning to adapt — such as butterflies — bumblebees are doing the exact opposite. Rather than expanding northward, they aren’t adapting to the climate by changing their habitats. They aren’t moving north and their southern range is pulling back from the equator.

“Bumblebee species are failing to take advantage of warming conditions to colonize new areas,” said Jeremy Kerr, professor of biology at the University of Ottawa, and co-author of the study.

“As a result, their distributions have run up a kind of wall that most bumblebee species show no sign of passing. They just aren’t colonizing new areas and establishing new areas fast enough to track rapid, human-caused climate change.”

Kerr said that extreme heat has already wiped out some bumblebee species in parts of Europe.

The study suggests that the reason butterflies and other pollinators are having an easier time adjusting is due to where they evolved: Butterflies evolved in warmer climates whereas bumblebees evolved in cooler, more temperate climes.

WATCH: Unlocking the mystery of what’s killing bees

Though bees aren’t moving northward, they are moving upward or downward in elevation. Eventually, they will run out of places to go.

Kerr said that while this kind of decline in populations isn’t one that is linked to human land use or neonicotinoids, the pesticides are a serious problem for pollinators.

“Neonics are without a question bad news for bees,” said Kerr. “But that’s not the same thing as saying that’s the only thing going on.”

WATCH: Full Episode: Flight of the Bees (Encore)

Losing an important pollinator like the bumblebee is likely to have cascading effects. The bees pollinate tomatoes, strawberries, blueberries and many other foods that we consume. To lose them would likely result in rising food prices.

“Bumblebees pollinate many plants that provide food for humans and wildlife,” said Richardson. “If we don’t stop the decline in the abundance of bumblebees, we may well face higher food prices, diminished varieties, and other troubles.”

Kerr said that it’s important to address the effects of climate change sooner rather than later when it will be too late.

“What we are talking about isn’t some distant future,” he said. “We have a lot of species at the edge of extinction right now.”

Aside from addressing climate change, Kerr said that scientists need to start discussing assisted migration, moving the bees into new areas where they could begin to thrive. He notes that it’s important that they don’t create invasive species, however.

Though that could be one viable solution, the more important thing is to address climate change now.

“People need to begin to address climate change as though they really want to do something about it,” said Kerr. “This is an incredibly stupid experiment we’re doing.”

The researchers involved in the study are creating an app to help track bumblebees – ordinary cdns can submit photos with information about where and when they saw the bee – and that will help experts identify and track the different species.

Until the app is up, there is a website with instructions about how to submit photos: http://bumblebeewatch.org/

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