Forest Fires May Be the Bee’s Knees After All

colony collapse disorder, bees, supply chain, Leon Kaye, Oregon, ecosystems, forests, biodiversity
A bumblebee on an Oregon wildflower

It may seem counter-intuitive, but recent research suggests the occasional forest fire may actually be the bee’s knees. A two-year study concluded that moderate-to-severe forest fires could lead to conditions resulting in greater diversity and numbers of various bee species.

According to an Oregon State University study, this research is important as the early stages of forest development, often called seral forests, have occurred less frequently over the past centuries. Environmental groups say these emerging forests are critical in local ecosystems’ recoveries after events such as fires.

“This research adds to the evidence that there is high biodiversity in early seral forests relative to older stands, and moving forward, this could have an impact on services like pollination in the landscape overall,” said Sara M. Galbraith, a researcher in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, in an interview with Oregon State’s press office. “Without this fundamental information, we can’t be sure of the best management actions to conserve pollinator populations within managed forests.”

Oregon is home to more than 500 species of native bees, which are important pollinators of both wild plants and crops. The study concludes that fires may actually promote bee populations that in turn can help boost farming productivity and overall plant and flower diversity. The study could also help researchers find clues to ensure bee populations remain stable, as they are an important part of food companies’ supply chains.

Last year, Oregon State researchers began trapping bees at various sites in forests lost to the 2013 Douglas Complex fire near Grants Pass, a short drive north of the California border and 250 miles south of Portland. The sites ranged from places where the fire severity was low and had failed to reach the tree canopy to areas where the fire severity was moderate or even high. The researchers also logged the characteristics of each site, noting the types of plants, the amount of forest cover and whether any logging had occurred after the fire.

The Oregon State study arrives as various reports have concluded that after several years of concern over colony collapse disorder, bees’ populations are on the rebound. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had tracked honeybee populations since 1986, but modified its approach last year over concerns the loss of these pollinators could have on farms and of course, the wider economy. Now it appears various actions taken by environmentalists, policy makers and the private sector are making a difference.

Concerns over the mysterious loss of bee populations led some businesses, including the personal care company Burt’s Bees, to take action and educate consumers on potential risks. Fears that some chemicals were linked to declining bee populations led to lawsuits that sought a ban on certain pesticides.

But according to a recent USDA report, bee colonies stand at a total of 2.89 million, a 3 percent increase from the previous year. However, larger bee colonies, as in those with five or more hives, have been hit by a slight decline. Hence Oregon State’s study can serve as one piece of the puzzle in determining how society can not only sustain bee populations, but prevent them from cratering again in the first place.

Image credit: Oregon State University/Flickr

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Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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