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Interesting Things About Small Things
Q&A with CI's Leeanne Alonso

Oct. 19, 2007: As director of CI’s Rapid Assessment Program, Leeanne Alonso has led more than 25 biodiversity surveys around the world. She has a Ph.D. in biology from Harvard University with a focus on insect diversity and tropical ecology. Although an expert on ants, Alonso has long been interested in their close relatives – bees – and other pollinators.

Q. While “Bee Movie” is primarily for entertainment, it has provoked much discussion about bees and their role in the natural world. How significant are the roles bees play?

A. Bees and other insects all play extremely important roles in the environment. Bees, in particular, are essential for pollination of plants. In the United States, 90 percent of wild plants need an animal pollinator. The remaining 10 percent are wind or hand pollinated. Without bees to move pollen between flowers of different plants, no fruits or seeds would be produced.

Q. How does the loss of bees affect our day-to-day lives?

A. The decline of the European honeybee (Apis mellifera), which was introduced in the U.S. for pollination, is the species you’ve probably heard most about. Honeybees and other pollinators are not only important for wild plants, but also for our food crops.

Insects pollinate one out of every three crops we eat, things like grapes, strawberries, squash, and tomatoes. In the U.S. alone, pollination by domesticated honeybees is worth almost $15 billion a year, and by native bees roughly $3 billion a year. So for every third bite you take, thank a pollinator!

Q. There has been a lot of news coverage about declining bee populations around the world. How do declining populations impact other small creatures and the overall environment?

A. Honeybees in the U.S. have been in decline since the 1940s from mites and a recent phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder, when worker bees suddenly disappear for an unknown reason. What many people don’t know is there are about 4,000 species of other bees native to the U.S. that also pollinate, sometimes more efficiently than honeybees. These bees include leaf-cutting bees, mason bees, orchard bees, and bumblebees. Unlike honeybees which live together in hives, some of these bees live solitarily in the ground or in trees.

As honeybees decline, we’re going to need the services of these native bees more and more. Many native bees no longer have adequate space to live because large farms and development have gobbled up natural areas, so to keep them around we need to conserve their habitats.

Q. Besides bees, what other small creatures perform similar important duties?

A. Butterflies, moths, flies, birds, bats, and even small mammals like mice, all pollinate plants. Insects, in general, play many important roles in the ecosystem. They aerate soil, giving plant roots the oxygen they need, and recycle nutrients by breaking down dead leaves on the forest floor. Insects also keep their own populations in check through predation and by serving as a source of food for birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and even humans. Acting as natural pest control for crops, insects save more than $4.5 billion a year in the U.S. Dung beetles and other decomposers that clean up cattle and livestock dung, which keeps fields free from parasitic flies, save the cattle industry over $4.5 million annually.

Q. What is one message we need to be aware of concerning bees and other small creatures?

A. Without the services that bees and other insects provide, our world as we know it would cease to exist. They may be cryptic and small, but they keep the world ticking. Their tireless work ensures that people and countless other creatures have enough food and habitat to survive.

Q. What is CI doing to save these small creatures?

A. In 2002, we created a program to make sure small invertebrates are not ignored in conservation. The Invertebrate Diversity Initiative raises awareness, trains young scientists, and supports scientific invertebrate surveys around the world.

For bees specifically, CI and our partners are developing apiculture, or beekeeping, projects in China, Mexico, and South Africa that balance biodiversity conservation with human welfare. Beekeeping offers local people living near protected areas an alternative livelihood that reduces their use of wild lands, which is good for all creatures, big and small. The projects bring communities new economic opportunities, as well as a better understanding of the intricate relationship between bees’ health and native plants. In this way, we are effectively promoting protection and restoration of habitat and building community pride in local biodiversity.

Q. How can I help?

A.. There are many ways:

  • You can conserve the habitat of native bees and other pollinators.
  • Use less pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers on your lawn, where many bees live. Provide patches of forest and other vegetation for bees’ shelter.
  • Plant native plant species to nourish bees with nectar and pollen.
  • If you can, buy organic products, since they are grown without pesticides.

Related Links:
> Get Involved: Take our Bee Good to the Planet Pledge!
> Feature: Vanishing Bees
> Feature: The Buzz About Bees
> Partner Profile: McDonald's

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© CI/Jed Murdoch
Leeanne Alonso is the director of CI’s Rapid Assessment Program.

© Beverly Guhl
In the United States, 90 percent of wild plants need an animal pollinator like bees.

© Cyril Ruoso/JH Editorial/Minden Pictures
Insects pollinate one out of every three crops we eat, things like grapes, strawberries, squash, and tomatoes.


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