What the First Global Bee Map Shows and Why It Matters

Scientists have managed for the first time to map the distribution of the 20,000 species of bees that exist on the planet.

The new global map will help in the conservation of the insects on which humanity depends for the pollination of crops, say researchers from Singapore and China.

Bees face enormous pressure on their population numbers due to habitat loss and pesticide use.

But nevertheless, little is known about the variety of species that live on all continents, except in Antarctica: from tiny stingless bees to bees the size of the thumb of your hand.

Bees provide essential services to our ecosystems and are the main pollinators for many of our staple foods.

However, until now, we haven’t had the data to show where they are on the planet most species, says Dr. Alice Hughes of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Yunnan, China.

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“Here we combine millions of records to create the first maps of the world’s wealth of bees. And we understand why we see these patterns,” he explains to the BBC.

“These maps, and our frame of reference, can form the basis for future work, allowing us to better understand the wealth patterns of bees and ensure that they are effectively conserved in the future“, he says.

Some species of bees, such as bumblebees, in areas like Europe and North America, are well studied. But in other regions, like much of Asia and Africa, documentation has been scant.

“By establishing a more reliable baseline, we can more accurately map the decline in bees and better distinguish areas less suitable for bees from areas where bees should thrive but have been reduced by threats like pesticides, loss of natural habitat and overgrazing, “says Dr. John Ascher of the National University of Singapore.

How was the map made?

To create the map, the researchers compared data on the occurrence of bee species with a checklist of more than 20,000 compiled by Dr. Ascher.

This gave a clearer picture of how the many species of bees are distributed in the world..

A bee on a flowerMany crops depend on native bee species for pollination. Photo: ZESTIN SOH via BBC.

The study has confirmed that, unlike other creatures, such as birds and mammals, they are found more species of bees in dry and temperate areas away from the poles than in tropical environments closer to the equator.

There’s a lot fewer species of bees in forests and jungles than in desert environments because trees tend to provide fewer sources of food for bees than plants and flowers.

The research is published in the journal Current Biology.

Facts about bees

  • There are more than 16,000 known species of bees in seven families.
  • Some species, such as bees, bumblebees, and stingless bees, live in colonies, while others are solitary insects.
  • Although some groups such as bumblebees are well studied, more than 96% of bee species are poorly documented.
  • Many crops, especially in developing countries, depend on native bee species, not honey bees.

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