The disappearance of the two pollinators would lead to profound ecological and economic impacts, explains Gerardo Ceballos, from the Institute of Ecology at UNAM. Although the extinction of any species has an impact, there are species that have more important roles in nature. Bees and bumblebees pollinate most wild plants and many crops, and today their populations are in decline.
“They are one of the most important groups of pollinators that exist on the planet; I would dare to say that between the two they are the most numerous”, specifies Gerardo Ceballos, researcher at the Institute of Ecology of the UNAM who is the most cited ecologist in Latin America. To be fertilized and to bear seeds and fruits, various native plants need bees or bumblebees to carry pollen from one flower to another flower of the same species. Without these pollinators, their survival would be compromised. “And that would lead to even greater problems, because plants, in turn, play a very important role in the functioning of their ecosystems”: if they disappeared, the animal species that feed on them could disappear.
The extinction of bees and bumblebees would also have a serious impact on humans: “our ability to produce food would be reduced,” says Ceballos. Among many fruits, vegetables and nuts, it is estimated that a third of the food we eat depends on the pollination of these insects.
Currently, a shortage of bees and bumblebees has forced some areas of China to pollinate fruit trees by hand. Artificial pollination has a huge cost and can be done on a small scale, but “what would happen when you had to pollinate billions of trees and plants?” asks the researcher without waiting for an answer.
In Mexico, meanwhile, some companies use trailers to transport bees to crops.
The crisis, caused by factors such as pesticide use, habitat destruction and species invasion, is global and part of a much larger process of population decline and species extinction: the sixth mass extinction.
“There have been five mass extinctions in the last 600 million years that involve the very rapid disappearance of 70% or more of the fauna and flora,” explained the academic. The main difference with the current one would be in the distribution of the causes: the human species plays a dominating role.
Are the damages reversible?
Despite everything, preserving bees and bumblebees is possible. The damage is only reversible if well-targeted conservation actions are carried out. One of them is to eliminate the use of toxic pesticides for these insects, explained Ceballos, who promoted Mexico’s endangered species standard.
“It can be salvaged to some extent. If we let it get to the point where there is very little [abejas y abejorros], it is very difficult to recover them. The good news is that if we take well-targeted conservation actions on the factors causing extinction, in most cases it is reversible.
At the individual level, one of the options that can help is to create a pollinator garden: a space with specific plants to provide food, shelter and water to these animals.
Over the years, the different species of plants and animals have faced various problems: droughts, fires, changes in temperature and oxygen, among others. Although this shows that they are resilient, the reality is that constant ecological and environmental damage can make their preservation impossible.
“We are experiencing a sixth mass extinction, which involves the very rapid disappearance of fauna and flora. Fast in ecological time means hundreds of thousands of years, but the sixth is instantaneous: we are talking about 100 or 150 years”.
“If we don’t do something very soon, in the next ten or fifteen years, we will lose a gigantic number of species, and that will undermine our ability to survive,” Ceballos concluded.