Corners of the Environmentalist Establishment voice shrieks regarding what they call a biodiversity emergency, prompting even skilled journalists to claim the trend poses “as great a risk to humanity as climate change.” We went through the “insect apocalypse” fiasco, which turned out to be argued using bad evidence, specifically, insufficient sampling and improper statistics, including confirmation bias and sampling bias. Even UNEP shouts out about a “biodiversity emergency,” putting in hand-in-hand with the “climate emergency.”
A lot of this results from bad definitions and expectations. As Daniel Botkin observes in his book The Moon in the Nautilus Shell — Discordant Harmonies Reconsidered, many of our notions regarding species extinction and invasive species are grounded in myths regarding how biomes operate and interact:
… Environmentalism of the 1960s and 1970s was essentially a disapproving and in this sense negative movement, focusing on aspects of our civilization that are bad for our environment. It played an important role by awakening people’s consciousness, but it didn’t provide many solutions to our environmental problems, or even viable approaches to solutions. That environmentalism was based on ideas of the industrial age — the machine age — ideas that developed in the eighteenth century and expanded in the nineteenth, ideas that I will argue in the rest of this book are outmoded.
That environmentalism has been perceived as opposing technological progress, but both those arguing for progress and those arguing for protection of the environment have shared a worldview, hidden assumptions, and myths about human beings and nature that dominated the industrial era. In the large, neither science nor environmentalism has gotten to the roots of the issues, which lie deep in our ideas and assumptions about science and technology, and go even deeper in myths and ancient worldviews.(pages 8-9, Botkin, The Moon in the Nautilus Shell, 2012)
This is a growing opinion among professional biologists. It’s understandable why. A flawed understanding of how biomes work impedes proper conservation and management, and is often antithetical to the very idea of natural management. As Botkin argued in his earlier book, Discordant Harmonies, many of us have this idea that if people did not interact with natural systems, or interacted minimally, they would return to an equilibrium wherein “native species” would thrive. Botkin quotes George Perkins Marsh:
In countries untrodden by man, the proportions and relative positions of land and water, the atmospheric precipitation and evaporation, the thermometric mean, and the distribution of vegetable and animal life, are subject to change only from geological influences so slow in their operation that the geographical conditions may be regarding as constant and immutable.(G. P. Marsh, Man and Nature, 1864)
Botkin isn’t the only advocate of this view. There’s Peter Del Tredici, both in his article, “The flora of the future,” and in his book Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast — A Field Guide (2nd edition, 2020). There’s the late Steven Vogel’s Thinking Like a Mall — Environmental Philosophy After the End of Nature where Vogel argues the very concept of “nature” itself is flawed.
There’s a lot of concern about honey bees (Apis mellifera). No doubt with ubiquitous use of pesticides like neonicotinoids, habitat destruction, and fungal pathogens make life difficult. But honey bees are not the only natural pollinators, even though most popular discussion considers “natural pollinators” synonymous with Apis mellifera. There are bumblebees, stingless bees, mason bees, carpenter bees, leafcutter bees, and sweat bees, as well as various moths. While environmental pressures create what are effectively “dead zones” for honey bees and some other bees, the general pattern is that wild bees thrive in other areas, even if these are inconveniently situated, at least from the perspective of farmers or apiaries. (See monitoring measures here and here.) Bee populations respond to some of these threats, including developing associations with bacteria like Bombella apis which suppress fungal pathogens.
Like so much else in biosphere dynamics, loss of species in one area is complemented by emergence or migration of other species in their place. This species rotation is typical, and should be expected due to phenological changes imposed by climate disruption. Even in the case of bees, climate disruption is apparently the most significant pressure, more than changes in landscapes or landscape quality, per
Kammerer, Melanie, Sarah C. Goslee, Margaret R. Douglas, John F. Tooker, and Christina M. Grozinger. “Wild bees as winners and losers: Relative impacts of landscape composition, quality, and climate.” Global Change Biology 27, no. 6 (2021): 1250-1265.
That suggests that if honey bees are to be protected, the best first step is to limit climate disruption by getting off fossil fuels and shutting their extraction and use down, even if that means conversion of some existing habitats to others, like felling trees to create solar fields.
In addition, and this is more or less the the point of this blog post, honey bees can be harmful to some plants. Consider the gymnosperm Gnetum luofuense. It evolved before bees so, as Alun Salt tells in his Botany One blog post about them,
It’s no surprise that the plant has no use for them. However, they still produce pollen, a food that bees like to eat.
Salt summarizes the report
Yang, Min, Tao Wan, Can Dai, Xiao‐Chun Zou, Fan Liu, and Yan‐Bing Gong. “Modern honeybees disrupt the pollination of an ancient gymnosperm, Gnetum luofuense.” Ecology (2021): e03497.
His subtitle tells the whole story:
Some people fixate on honey bees as essential for pollination. Reality is more complicated. For one species, honey bee visits actively harm its chances of pollinating a partner.
If active measures to promote biodiversity are taken, managers ought to understand matters first and well before stumbling into a place where they don’t know what they are doing. And people with concern for biomes and the general environment ought to appreciate that while slogans like “biodiversity emergency” might make great rallying cries to gain membership and financial support, their relevance to biological reality is limited.