Climate Crisis in High-Altitudes — The Case of Bumblebees

Next time you are in Himalayas, think about Bumblebees. They sustain ecosystem at high altitudes where other pollinators are rare to exist, but climate change and global warming are spelling doom for these species. Due to their relative inaccessibility, the impacts of climate change upon high-altitude ecosystems rarely come into the spotlight.

Photo by Parth Joshi

For anyone who has spent time in the high altitudes, the low frequency drone of a bumblebee is one of the most easily discernible sounds. It might look like just another insect foraging around the mountain, but beneath the unassuming demeanour lies one of the most fascinating creatures which hold immense importance to our natural ecosystems as well as the economy.

Bees are natural pollinators, on which many areas of modern agriculture depend upon. Almost 85% of commercially grown crops are insect pollinated[1]. It is estimated that between $235 and $577 billion (U.S.) worth of annual global food production relies on the direct contribution of pollinators[2]. The disappearance of bees has been raising an alarm for quite a while now, and the domino effect on the economy that would follow if we keep swatting them out of existence is unfathomable. Consider this, in south China, because of the almost complete disappearance of bees in some places, the pear and apple crop are being pollinated by hand with a tiny paintbrush[3].

Bumblebees, which occur largely in the wild as compared to human settlements or agricultural farms, are often not recognized for their immense contribution to the ecosystem management and the economy. They are single-handedly responsible for pollination in high-altitude regions where other pollinators are not found in large numbers. Even in these cold regions, they work tirelessly — in Scandinavia, they can forage for full 24 hours a day in the summers.

Unlike the honeybee, bumblebees also pollinate flowers that do not produce nectar, as well as “difficult” flowers like antirrhinum. They can fly at much lower temperatures as compared to honeybees and thus become very important at higher elevations, able to fly higher than Everest. They also generate the ‘buzz’ at higher frequencies which is a pre requisite for some anthers to release pollen, due to which bumblebee cultivation for glasshouse pollination has been a successful practice since the 1980s.

However, climate change and global warming are spelling doom for these species. Bumblebees have annual life cycles that correspond to the stark seasonal changes at high altitudes. Due to accelerated melting of glaciers and irregular seasonal patterns, the flowering cycles are changing at high altitudes, thereby impacting bumblebee populations.

Due to their relative inaccessibility, the impacts of climate change upon high-altitude ecosystems rarely come into the spotlight, yet any long-term damage in these regions will spell doom for millions of people living downstream that depend upon ecosystems for essential services like water and minerals. Bumblebees form an indispensable part of these landscapes, and the next time you spot a bumblebee flying inconspicuously from one flower to the next, be sure to remember the role they play in bringing food to our tables.

This article is contributed by Parth Joshi, Climate Reality Leader and National Livelihoods Specialist, SECURE Himalaya at UNDP.

References: [1] https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0003128

[2] http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/384726/icode/

[3] https://www.bumblebee.org/economic.htm

Climate Reality India

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The Climate Reality Project India, actively engages igniting the spark and spreading the message of #climatechange amongst educators and civil society.

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