Bee Monitoring System Could Serve As Early Warning System For Global Food Shortages
December 20, 2012

Bee Monitoring System Could Serve As Early Warning System For Global Food Shortages

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

A United Nations-sponsored study has developed a new method to monitor global bee populations. The method, which will see regular bee counts over a five year period, should also serve as an early warning system alerting scientists to dangers threatening the world´s food and economic system.

The work has been spearheaded by San Francisco State University Professor of Biology Gretchen LeBuhn. She and her colleagues, who published their study in the December 12 issue of Conservation Biology, said the bee monitoring system is simple and cost-effective. Keeping a good count on the bees at about 200 distinct locations would produce data accurate enough to detect two to five percent annual declines in bee populations. They said their method, which costs about $2 million, samples bees on an international scale, but could be scaled to fit different regional needs.

"My goal is to give agencies all around the world an effective way to monitor bees," said LeBuhn in a statement. "Biologists have talked a lot about how bee populations are declining, but I don't think we actually have good data that acts as an early warning signal for possible problems with our food system."

The authors said the “estimated cost of sustaining an international monitoring program is a relatively small investment compared to the potential economic cost of severe pollinator losses.”

LeBuhn added that 35 percent of the global food chain, roughly $200 billion a year, depends on the bee population. If the bee population falters, the food system falters as well.

The bee monitoring system relies on paid workers around the world to count and identify bees using simple “pan traps.” These brightly-colored traps, filled with liquid, attract the bees making it easy for workers to count them. To determine the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of such a plan, the researchers designed simulations using data from eleven previously published studies.

LeBuhn said the long-term goal of the project is to establish a network of monitoring stations around the globe to provide data analysis for the entire planet.

“We hope to eventually centralize some of the data collection so that people who are counting bees regionally can contribute to a larger data set,” she added.

The “Great Sunflower Project,” a bee monitoring system also organized by LeBuhn, incorporated 100,000 citizen scientists across North America to count bees in their own backyards. The project, now in its fifth year, recently found low numbers of bees in urban areas across America, adding weight to the theory that habitat loss is one of the primary reasons for sharp declines in bee populations.

The research for the new project was funded by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The program has already been implemented in a number of countries including Brazil, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan and South Africa. The project has garnered support from the Global Environment Facility and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).