Bumblebee tongues and carbon emissions

by grahamhendrix on September 25, 2015 - 5:42pm

Climate change is having a range of impacts all around the world, and some of them are more obscure than you might think. Ravi Mandalla reported on TechieNews about a study published that found the length of bumblebee tongues has decreased by nearly 25% over four decades. The bees were native to alpine environments in the Rocky Mountains, where the shape and size of flowers hadn’t changed but the abundance of flowers to feed on (which is why bumblebees need long tongues) had also decreased by 60% over the same time period. This change to the vegetation community is attributed to global climate change, as high alpine environments are some of the first to see impacts of changing climate.


This article did provide a concise and clear summary of a technical paper, but there was one major flaw with it. The glaring oversight in my opinion was a failure to include a link to the original study in the article. I had to search for the article myself using the researcher’s name and keywords before I found it. The original research was published in Science, which is something I’d consider including in a news story about it, as it’s a prestigious journal with high publication standards (Miller-Struttmann et al, 2015).


The emphasis of this news article was more on climate change than resource management, although climate change is obviously of major importance to all sorts of resource management issues. Even beyond how changing climatic patterns will affect the supply of biotic natural resources such as fish and trees, as well as our ability to access resources with more frequent extreme weather patterns, climate change itself can be viewed as a resource management issue. If carbon is considered in the context of a resource, and CO2 as a waste product, then one of the reasons climate change continues to be a problem is that there are no clearly defined property rights for the atmosphere - most management happens on a national basis, but as no state can lay claim to the air, cohesive regulation of emissions is nearly impossible.


An additional aspect of this story that could relate to environmental issues, but is not mentioned in the news story, is the widespread pollinator declines that are currently occurring globally (Potts et al, 2010). This article is unusual in that the changes occurring in these bumblebees might actually be positive in the context of the pollinator crisis: shorter tongues, like those evolving in this population, are characteristics of more “generalist” bees, as their specific food source of alpine flowers is becoming more rare. Although this is unfortunate, it could mean that these bumblebees would serve as pollinators for other plants in more lowland areas, which could be of great benefit to agriculturalists who are struggling to find enough domestic honeybees to pollinate their crops. These bumblebees are native to the central Rocky Mountains, which puts them quite close to California’s expansive fruit and vegetable croplands that are in desperate need of more pollinators (Kremen et al, 2002).


Overall, this news article struck me as quite effective in its intended goal of more widely distributing the results of this research, even if it did fail to provide as much context as I would have liked.


Kremen, C., Bugg, R. L., Nicola, N., Smith, S. A., Thorp, R. W., & Williams, N. M. (2002). Native bees, native plants and crop pollination in California. Fremontia, 30(3-4): 41-49.


Miller-Struttmann, N.E., Geib, J.C., Franklin, J.D., Kevan, P.G., Holdo, R.M., Ebert-May, D., Lynn, A.M., Kettenbach, J.A., Hedrick, E., & Galen, C. (2015). Functional mismatch in a bumble bee pollination mutualism under climate change. Science 349(6255): 1541-1544.


Potts, S. G., Biesmeijer, J. C., Kremen, C., Neumann, P., Schweiger, O., & Kunin, W. E. (2010). Global pollinator declines: trends, impacts and drivers. Trends in ecology & evolution, 25(6),:345-353.



The title really drew me to your article. What could bumblebee tongues and climate change possibly have in common?
I respected your analysis of the shortcomings of the paper you examined. Like you mentioned, the original article should have been mentioned in the article you read. Your synopsis on this point was well explained.
I am curious to know more about how climate change is affecting bumblebees. I would have been interested in a bit more information on the science regarding this. Although you provided an argument on the importance of climate change management, your blog did not really explore the importance of management of the species effected.
From your research, is this effect on bumblebees a negative one needing local management?