We talked with Dr. James Nieh, Associate Dean and Professor at UC San Diego, about climate impacts to honey bee health and populations as part of the 2020 Climate Change Consortium. Check out our Q&A on today's blog!
As part of the 2020 Climate Change Consortium for Specialty Crops, hosted in partnership by the Climate Science Alliance and the California Department of Food and Agriculture, we spoke with several Consortium participants to highlight the important work they do for our communities.
Dr. James Nieh is an Associate Dean in the Division of Biological Sciences and a Professor in Ecology, Behavior, and Evolution at the University of California San Diego. James in interested in the evolution of communication in social bees, and how pesticides and pathogens affect honey bee health and behavior.
Changing climate conditions, including warmer temperatures, changes in chill hours, shifts in precipitation, and more variable and intense extremes, could result in many indirect and direct impacts for our pollinators, such as phenological mismatch with plants (differences in the timing of floral blooming and bee needs) and affect critical resources such as water and food that pollinator populations depend upon. However, because the impacts to pollinators are complex, more research is needed.
Climate Science Alliance (Alliance): What climate-related changes (drought, extreme precipitation, flooding, wildfire, temperature changes, and/or other) do you think have the biggest impact on bees in our region?
Dr. James Nieh (Dr. Nieh): Drought and increased temperatures are likely the biggest climate change drivers for bees. Bees need water. Without it there can be massive impacts to colonies. When water is scarce, bees can seek it in gardens, irrigation, or in swimming pools. Wildfire is another concern in our region, and can impact managed honeybees that are usually housed in wooden boxes. The good news is that native bees are likely more adapted to Southern California’s fire ecology. However, temperature changes that drive these fire extremes likely impact native species due to mismatches in flower blooming times. Since honeybees are floral generalists – meaning they use several floral species – these mismatches may be less severe for honey bees than for native bees.
Alliance: In what ways do you think we can adapt to conserve pollinators?
Dr. Nieh: Most of the current focus for agriculture is on managed honeybees (trucking bees over hundreds of miles) but we might be missing an opportunity to use native bees to a greater degree to support local agriculture and natural landscapes. To be more resilient we should be looking for opportunities to create habitats that provide food for native and managed pollinators. If we can find a way to sustainably pollinate local crops with only local bees, we could reduce the need and dependence on managed beekeeping. By conserving and increasing native habitat for native bees, we also provide more diverse food resources for managed bees and could therefore help increase their health, since monofloral diets are not healthy for honey bees.
Alliance: Given the projected impacts, what do you see as the greatest challenges and/or opportunities for the region's agricultural producers and what ideas do you have to share with farmers?
Dr. Nieh: I would encourage growers that use honeybees to identify ways to use local bees, by planting crops that would sustain colonies when they are not pollinating the main crops, and to reduce pesticide use as much as possible. This will help reduce the problem of pest insects becoming resistant to pesticides and also reduce costs since pesticides can be expensive. At the end of the day, honeybees and native bees need clean water which producers also need for crops. Many of the action’s farmers are taking to build resilience, test climate smart practices, and advance regenerative agriculture also help support pollinators so it’s a win-win.