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Peoples’ love of bees bodes well for conservation efforts, MU researcher finds

May 7, 2020
Contact: Austin Fitzgerald, 537-882-6217, fitzgeraldac@missouri.edu

Bees pollinate about 75% of all fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the U.S., as well as 80% of flowering plants in the world. As the challenges facing bee populations around the world have become more well-known, the insects have become increasingly visible in media and popular culture. Though this level of attention is not unprecedented — many still remember the "killer bee" scares of past decades, and just this week came word of “murder hornets” — the influx of positive attention bees are receiving from the public has researchers pondering how to harness this attention to help protect bees from issues such as pesticides and land-uses that remove native vegetation.

This is a picture of Damon Hall.

Damon Hall’s research examines interactions between social and ecological systems where science, policy, and culture meet.

Now, researchers from the University of Missouri have conducted a review of research covering how insect pollinators are perceived in society, studying how those perceptions impact research and conservation. Their findings suggest that the recent development of more positive perceptions of bees, as well as the strong ties between bee health and human welfare, offer encouraging opportunities to advance pollinator protection and education efforts — opportunities that may not exist for less human-centric environmental issues.

“Unfortunately, insects are mostly invisible to the public. They are vital to our survival in so many ways, but they are often taken for granted until a crisis makes them impossible to ignore,” said Damon Hall, an assistant professor in MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. “With bees, we are seeing a call to action in the media and in the research community. People recognize that if bees fail, then our food and agriculture becomes much harder to sustain.”

Hall and co-author Dino Martins, a research scholar and lecturer in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University and Director of the Mpala Research Centre, reviewed current research on a range of human aspects of bee conservation. These aspects included overall public perceptions, consumer reactions to bee-friendly products, the economic value of pollinators and recommendations for experts and legislators on how to better manage these insects.

The article also emphasized that attention to the domesticated European honey bees distracts attention from the less studied declines in native bees and other insect pollinators. A rush to ‘save the bees’ by placing honey bee hives in natural locations has negative consequences, as locating honey bee hives in natural habitats forces competition with native insect pollinators for the same nectar and pollen, Hall said. The best thing people can do for native insect pollinators is let the weedy flowers in the yard grow and plant flowers.

This is a picture of a goldenrod cellophane bee

A goldenrod cellophane bee, one of 4,000 species of bees native to North America.

The researchers concluded that as positive perceptions of bees have increased through the popular media, the insects have become less a subject of fear and more a subject of interest among the general public, which could make it easier to pass pollinator-friendly legislation compared to other environmental issues.

Hall and Martins also highlighted that the clear connection between the welfare of bees and the welfare of humanity encourages people to take bee threats seriously. They suggest that those seeking changes in land and pesticide use should consider engaging with farmers and legislators by focusing on the implications for human society if bee health continues to decline.

“Conserving bee populations means conserving our way of life,” Hall said. “While it is essential to understand bee threats from the perspective of the bees, our review clearly underlines the importance of addressing the human dimensions of the crisis. It is unfortunate that bee declines have so many negative implications for humanity, but at the same time, those implications make it easier for us to mobilize against these threats.”

Despite the encouraging signs of increased public awareness and positivity toward bees, Hall said worrying signs still remain. While native bees are often better and more efficient pollinators of crops and flowering plants, media coverage tends to focus on honey bees. As honey bees are a managed species, they are better-protected than the majority of native species but still remain the face of the pollinator crisis, which could result in less support for initiatives focused on supporting native bees.

The review, “Human dimensions of insect pollinator conservation,” was published this week in Current Opinion in Insect Science. Funding was provided by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, McIntire Stennis, project 1021674, the Whitley Fund for Nature, the National Geographic Society and Princeton University.

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