Science & Tech

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Peter Soroye studies the effects of climate change on the bumblebee population and how to save them

A new study conducted by a student at the University of Ottawa has found a direct link between climate change and declining bumblebee populations — as well as strategies to combat the consequences of both.

The paper, led by U of O PhD candidate Peter Soroye, concluded that extreme weather events associated with climate change have been taking their toll on bumblebees in Europe and North America for over a generation, with the likelihood of a population surviving in a given place declining by an average of over 30 per cent.

“On one hand, climate change increases average temperatures — summers get warmer, winters get warmer,” said Soroye. “But on the other hand, climate change increases the frequency and severity of extreme events, so things like heat waves and droughts.”

“It looks like the increasing frequency of extreme events is pushing bumblebees and probably other species beyond what they can tolerate.”

Using over 100 years worth of data related to bumblebee sightings and climate events in Europe and North America, Soroye was able to expand on a study conducted in 2015 by his graduate supervisor, biology professor Jeremy Kerr, who was one of the first in the field to suggest bumblebee populations were susceptible to temperature changes.

“Using data from dozens of institutions, we were able to tell where bumblebees were in the past, where they are now, and where they’ve been disappearing,” said Soroye. 

“We can relate this to climate information to determine what climate behaviours were pushing these species beyond their limits.”

According to Kerr, if bumblebee populations continue to decline, the agricultural industry could suffer detrimental effects on crops that rely almost exclusively on bumblebees, which are “stronger pollinators” with the ability to carry heavier forms of pollen, such as that of tomato plants.

While some have looked to honeybees — which are a domesticated species — as a potential replacement for bumblebees, Marc Patry, an Ottawa-based beekeeper, agreed that bumblebees are not the easily-replaceable pollinators some might think they are.

“Honeybees don’t pollinate any type of flower out there — only certain types of flowers,” he said. “Native bees are obviously going to be better at pollinating certain types of plants, particularly those that are native to the environment they’ve evolved in.”

The data gathered from this study, said Soroye, will be used to develop strategies to combat the impending extinction of bumblebees — something he believes is still possible.

“The goal of this whole study was to be able to predict where climate change is causing extinctions,” he said. “Since we can predict these things with pretty high accuracy, we’re much better able to go to these spots and better intervene, such as by protecting habitats or creating new ones.”

Soroye’s study is not only a “unique success” in the field of conservation, said Kerr, but has also gained a degree of media traction that is unprecedented among graduate papers at U of O.

“There may have been only one or two other examples at the university of students who have achieved something with such a global impact,” he said. “It’s certainly among the best examples of graduate student accomplishment in science anywhere.”

Beatrice Olivastri, CEO of Friends of the Earth Canada, said studies like Soroye’s and Kerr’s encourage a “symbiotic relationship” between scientific research and activism related to the protection of all species of bees. Friends of the Earth Canada is an organization that voices concerns for the environment on a national and international level. 

“The scientists need to know the public’s concern so they can put together the financial resources they need to do their studies,” she said. “There’s been an increase in research work related to bee populations in Canada, and a lot of that is due to people’s increasingly public concern about bees.”

While much of this public concern has focused on “utilitarian reasons” for bee conservation, said Kerr, he emphasized the importance of highlighting the ethics of biodiversity when looking to conduct campaigns related to wildlife protection.

“In my view, the reasons for conservation are more importantly around asking ourselves what kind of world we want to live in,” he said. “Do you want to live in a silent world with low diversity, or do you want a world with difference, colour, and sound?”