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Floods, bumblebees and pollination

Admin, February 27, 2014

As the floods in Somerset and the Thames valley continue with apparently little abatement, we see footage of farm stock and local wildlife increasingly at risk due to rising floodwaters, sometimes being evacuated altogether. On the other hand, little is said about other wildlife caught up in this calamity – all those unseen species that inhabit the undergrowth and hedgerows tend to go unnoticed. It is worth giving consideration to bumblebees as flagship species for this flood threatened and unnoticed group.

Bumblebee pollinating flowers

Bumblebees nest in holes in the ground, giving them a propensity to be easily flooded during prolonged rainfall and especially if water levels rise and as a consequence of land inundation. Evidence of this has already been reported in flooded Machair in NW Scotland and the Western Isles such as low lying areas of Uist in 2007.

The longer floodwaters remain in place, the more isolated individual bee colonies become as interaction between nectar sources on separated islands becomes minimal. If individual islands lack floral resources the demise of the bee colony may be swift, but even once the water goes, there remains behind a smothering of silt and pollution that prevents rapid re-growth of vegetation. Many plants will simply have rotted away while underwater and the loss in floral diversity will soon be followed by the demise of local bumble-bee colonies.

Flood in the UKSee picture at http://flic.kr/p/fFF2ud

We really have no idea what the long term effects of the floodwaters are, but we can be sure that it will take time for bumblebee colonies to re-establish in those areas now under water. Historically and biogeographically, wild areas subject to periodic inundation are very fertile and support large populations and quite diverse ecologies, but our land management has an agricultural emphasis (resulting in low biodiversity to begin with) and the waters are polluted with sewage. The effects are largely unknown, but we can almost certainly anticipate lower numbers of pollinators during summer in fields associated with the floods.

Flooding isn’t the only peril. Direct loss through drowning is soon replaced with a longer term impact on flight period and food availability. Cold wet days leave less time for foraging at flowers and also means that greater energy is expended during flower visits, leaving early season queen bees exhausted and vulnerable to cold and predation. Additionally there are fewer flowers in bloom, especially in the important spring months when bumblebee populations are nurtured. The long term effects of vast areas flooded, is loss of flowering diversity, which itself has a negative impact on all pollinators, such as bumblebees, honeybees, hover-flies and butterflies.

Bumblebee pollinating flowers