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?

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused stress — both personal and financial — across the globe. Governors in Washington, New York, and a number of other states have made shelter-in-place a requirement for a majority of the population. While humans are trapped indoors, animals and insects are still active and thriving. But how are pollinators like bees affected by a lack of humans on the landscape?

As a research scientist who studies pollinators in an urban setting, I was initially more concerned about not having access to my field sites than whether the bees will survive the pandemic without human interference. But there are a number of ways the shut downs may affect the bees.

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.

Wildlife commonly seen in cities — like the swans in Venice, found almost year-round in the canals — are not necessarily present due to a lack of humans, though they may be less disturbed. Other ‘sightings’ — like dolphins swimming in the same Venetian canals — have been debunked. Without humans in the picture, even animals that normally live in cities seem out of place, and fake social media posts have gone viral by tugging on people’s heart strings.

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.

Farmers commonly rent honey bee hives for pollination of a number of crops, including blueberries, almonds, and oranges. Honey bees are a domesticated insect, and transportation requires a chain of delivery drivers and interactions between farmers and beekeepers following a specific timeline to match bloom time of flowering plants. If drivers or beekeepers fall ill, the entire system could be disrupted. The impact on U.S. food production has been brought up in reference to potentially infected field workers, disruptions to supply chain, and lack of orders from restaurants. Agriculture is considered an essential business in the US, but that doesn’t mean things will continue uninterrupted forever. If COVID-19 disrupts the pollination industry, we will definitely see the results in our grocery store aisles.

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.

With humans out of the picture for long enough, there’s a potential for these environments to flourish rather than suffer. Humans commonly create more problems than solutions, especially for flowering plants and pollinators. We destroy native meadows to build cities, plant horticultural flowers that provide no pollen or nectar, and spray pesticides that harm bees. Removing human interaction may give bees a survival advantage during the pandemic shutdowns. However, humans also alter the habitat to support bees — restoration projects, flowering plant gardens, public parks projects — and forced isolation could result in fewer plantings and nesting sites for pollinators.

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.

All this being said, quarantines are occurring at a very small time scale — even though it may feel like March lasted an entire year. Removing humans from the environment for just a month or two may not affect pollinators at all. But crowds of people filling green spaces on warm, sunny spring days pose a threat to bees emerging from winter hibernation at crucial stages of their life cycle. If bees are stepped on, disturbed, or starve during the early days of spring, they won’t survive to lay offspring and ensure the survival of their population the following year.

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.

Pollinators are not the biggest concern during a pandemic — nor should they be. We should all be diligent in adhering to CDC guidelines to lessen the spread of COVID-19 to vulnerable populations. No matter what happens, if you see a bee, be sure to leave it undisturbed — it’s the best thing you can do for the bees right now.

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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