For many years, the hockey stick graph was the main indicator that global warming was actually happening. But recently the accumulation of more and more clues that climate change is not only real, but increasingly relevant, has scientists alarmed. Joining troubling signs like the disappearance of permafrost and melting glaciers is the seemingly harmless shift in pollinating patterns among bees in the past 130 years.
As pollen-feeders, bees adapt to the seasonal ebb and flow of faunal growth. Just as spring is the period of highest growth among plants, it’s also the time when bees are most active.
A recent study, conducted by incorporating contemporary and museum data dating back to the 1880s, examined climate-related shifts in the spring emergence of 10 species of the North American bee. Compiling this information with four other studies that tracked the flowering shifts of 106 native North American plants revealed a startling trend.
Because the start of spring has been taking place earlier each year as the Earth’s climate warms, bees have started emerging about ten days earlier than they did a century ago—a trend that mirrors patterns in carbon emissions, because the greatest increase in retro-emergence took place from the 1970s until now.
This shift alarms scientists studying the relationship between plant life and pollinators like bees because of the comparatively short lifespan of insects. When an organism only lives for a few weeks, ten days represents a huge chunk of time, and therefore a drastic shift in behavior.
The concern about extreme shifts like this is that they’re hard to sustain and tend to stress a species as a whole—particularly if the factors pushing the shift are artificial. If that proves to be the case, thereby forcing bees and flowers out of their cyclical synchronization, it would be catastrophic for both kingdoms. Because bees need plants to survive, if spring hits too early or too late due to the drastic shifts caused by global warming, it would devastate the species.
Then, because 85% of pollination (a process plants need in order to reproduce and grow) is carried out by animals—and the bulk of that workload is shouldered by bees—we would eventually lose most of our plant population. That wouldn’t just affect tree-hugging environmentalists either. Animals pollinate 75% of the world’s crops, so a devastated bee population translates to a devastated agricultural economy as well.
Although the transition from bees waking up earlier to an economic and environmental flat line may look like a tenuous string of scare tactics, the possibility of disaster is quite real. In the 19th century, the combined logic of Americans was that the United States provided an unlimited amount of space for settlers. There was unlimited game, unlimited natural resources, and unlimited possibilities.
As forests shrink, towns run out of water, and more animals find themselves on endangered species lists, we’re only beginning to discover how limited that thinking was. And so it is to believe that humanity’s impact on the globe is inconsequential—just ask the bees.