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Climate Change Has Been Harming Bees For Almost A Century, New Study Reveals

The study was published in the Journal of Animal Ecology.

Climate change has been harming bees for almost a century, according to new research.

Habitat loss caused by rising temperatures dates back 97 years – much further than previously thought.

The study was published in the Journal of Animal Ecology.

The discovery is based on an analysis of bumblebee specimens housed in museums across the U.K.

It identified ‘asymmetry’, with left and right wings developing disproportionately. The phenomenon indicates stress which rose from its lowest point – around 1925.

It was caused by an external factor that affected normal growth – namely, the weather.
A study of four separate species showed each displayed more as time wore on.

The team compared annual average temperature and rainfall during the year of collection. In hotter and wetter years the pollinators displayed greater lopsidedness.

Senior author Dr. Richard Gill, of Imperial College London, said: “With hotter and wetter conditions predicted to place bumblebees under higher stress, the fact these conditions will become more frequent under climate change means bumblebees may be in for a rough time over the 21st century.”

In Britain, a third of wild bees are in decline. If current trends continue, certain species will be lost altogether. They pollinate flowering crops, such as oil seed rape.

Lead author Aoife Cantwell-Jones, also from Imperial, said: “By using a proxy of stress visible on the bee’s external anatomy and caused by stress during development just days or weeks before, we can look to more accurately track factors placing populations under pressure through historic space and time.”

As well as revealing past stress in bees, the study can help predict when and where their survival will be threatened most in the future.

The researchers also used ancient DNA techniques to map a century of bumblebee genomes.

In a pioneering breakthrough, methods typically employed for woolly mammoths and early humans were introduced for the first time used in insects.

Dr. Richard Gill and Dr. Selina Brace investigate the bumblebee collections at the Natural History Museum, London, England. Undated photograph. (Simon Galloway, SWNS/Zenger)

By taking just a single leg from each of the bees, they revealed the reported stress may lead to genetic diversity loss.

The data reveals how bee DNA has altered, shedding light on how whole populations have either adapted to fresh environments – or been wiped out.

Curators from the Natural History Museum London, National Museums Scotland, Oxford University Museum of Natural History, World Museum Liverpool and Tullie House Museum Carlisle were involved in the ambitious project.

Co-author Dr. Victoria Mullin, from the Natural History Museum, said: “Museum insect collections offer an unparalleled opportunity to directly study how the genomes of populations and species have been affected by environmental changes through time.

“However, they are a finite resource and understanding how best to utilize them for genetic studies is important.”

Previous research has found every 0.4 square miles in the U.K. has lost an average of 11 species of bee between 1980 and 2013.

It has far-reaching consequences. Insects provide a food source for many birds, amphibians, bats and reptiles.

Senior author Professor Ian Barnes, also from the Natural History Museum, said: “One of the main problems with museum collections is the quality of DNA can be very variable, making it difficult to predict which type of analyses we should do.

Dr. Richard Gill and Dr. Selina Brace investigate the bumblebee collections at the Natural History Museum, London, England. Undated photograph. (Simon Galloway, SWNS/Zenger)

“We now have a much better idea about DNA preservation in insect collections, which is a massive boost to our ongoing work to understand the history and future of insect populations.”

A recent scientific review of insect numbers around the world suggested that 40 percent of species were undergoing “dramatic rates of decline”.

Bees, ants and beetles are disappearing eight times faster than mammals, birds or reptiles.

Added Dr. Gill: “These studies showcase the value of leveraging museums’ specimens to go back in time and unlock the past’s secrets.

“But what we have done is just the beginning, and by continuing our work with these vital public collections and collaborating with curators we can only discover more.

“This work was part of a Natural Environment Research Council-funded project and could not have been achieved without the commitment, hard work, and diligence of the museum curators, and our other collaborators.

“We are also grateful to BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) funds in supporting the generation of the bumblebee reference genome.”

Earlier studies have found losses of butterflies, moths, beetles, bees and hoverflies across the U.K.

Produced in association with SWNS.

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