We all know that bees are important to pollination for numerous species of plants, so many so that when bees disappear, it can wreak havoc on ecosystems. But different bees are suited for different flowers, and can be generally grouped by how long their tongue is. Bees which collect pollen from deeper plants have longer tongues, which they developed in a process of co-evolution with the plants in question.
However, changes in ecosystems can impact plant and animal traits quite quickly, and that can be seen in a new study about alpine bumblebees living in high altitudes of Colorado. Due to climate change, summers have been hotter recently, which has resulted in less deep flowers growing, which subsequently means that bees begin to favor their medium and short tongued brethren. Basically, as long tongued bees aren’t as good at harvesting pollen from shallower plants, and so that feature isn’t passed on as often to successive generations.
The researchers behind the study looked at bee specimens collected from the 60s to the 80s, and compared them to more recent specimens. They found many more short tongued specimens, to coincide with the shallower flowers.
For now, this doesn’t seem like a big problem. Bees are still feeding and breeding, and the plants that are surviving the hotter summers are doing okay. But those deeper plants aren’t breeding as successfully, and those that remain will continue to breed poorly because there are less bees to assist them. If temperatures cool again and the summers go back to normal, the deeper flowers are unlikely to make a comeback.
So yet another study shows the kinds of effects that climate change has on the world. Of course, the climate of the planet has changed over time, and it’s possible that the bee/plant relationship has changed in the past and could change again. But climate change of late hasn’t been entirely natural, and it will take a lot to fix it. We can expect to see more impacts like this in the future as well.