How will quarantines impact the bees?

People worldwide have voiced concern about wildlife during the COVID-19 quarantines. But will the shut down affect our favorite pollinators?

Mount Rainier flowering alpine meadow — photo by liquidcrash on Flickr.
Rialto Bridge, Venice, Italy — photo by Atibordee Kongprepan on Flickr.

Wildlife take advantage of human isolation

Many people have taken to documenting wildlife roaming the streets without the presence of humans — both real and fake. Pictures of peacocks roaming Spain, bobcats entering cities in Chile, and coyotes in San Francisco paint a picture of animals flourishing without human beings. Scientists are interested, with studies already in the works to study bird behavior during the shut down.

Honey bee, Apis mellifera — photo by Renee Grayson on Flickr.

Domesticated bees during COVID-19

Pollinators are not normally lumped into news stories with charismatic megafauna — a common ecology term for appealing and easily identifiable animals such as elephants, lions, and wolves, among others. Insects fall by the wayside when more lovable animals take to the streets. But those relying on pollinators to perform ecosystem services — like honey bee beekeepers — have serious concerns. Lockdowns in China have led to fears of bee hives left untended and honey shortages.

Cone-waisted cuckoo bee, Coelioxys froggatti — photo by Jean and Fred on Flickr.

Native bees in a pandemic

While honey bees have been bred for thousands of years to perform pollination services for humans, native bees are found naturally occurring in the wild, providing pollination for native plants and supporting entire ecosystems. Wild bees survive by foraging on pollen and nectar, nesting in the natural environment, and laying offspring to continue to grow the population. These bees are plentiful in high elevation meadows filled with alpine flowers, native oak savannas, forests of flowering trees, and urban parks.

Gasworks Park in Seattle, WA during a non-pandemic summer— photo by Seattle Municipal Archives on Flickr.

More people outdoors during the quarantine

In Seattle, the tech industry has shifted their employees from offices to working from home. Companies like Amazon, Tableau, and Google still have a strong work force, but with a more flexible schedule, reduced commute, and in many cases — children to keep occupied. The streets of my neighborhood are filled with people taking a mid-day walk with their kids or to break up their day. Public parks in Seattle have been so full of people they were shut down over the weekend to reduce virus exposure. With more people outside — walking through flowers, tending to gardens, or taking a mid-day run through a restoration site — the chance that they may disturb early spring bees is higher than normal.

Leafcutter bee, Megachile sp. — photo by Omer Unlu on Flickr.

Only time will tell for pollinators

Overall there have been no studies as of yet on whether bees will flourish or flounder during the pandemic. With no expected crossover of COVID-19 from humans to insects, bees do not face the same health concerns we do. As a pollination research scientist, I do not foresee a large impact on bee populations during a short shut down. Should the quarantines be extended through the summer— which is likely, in the United States — and people continue to fill the outdoors, we may be able to detect a drop in urban bee populations next year.

PhD candidate in the UW School of Environment and Forest Sciences; I study PNW native bees via genetic analysis. Breaking down big ideas in science.

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