Public interest exceeds understanding in bee conservation

Survey reveals need for public education and outreach about bees and pollinators.

Many people have heard that bee populations are declining due to such threats as colony collapse disorder, pesticides and habitat loss. Many people also understand that bees are critical to plant pollination. Yet, according to a study led by Utah State University ecologist Joseph Wilson, few are aware of the wide diversity of bees and other pollinators beyond such species as honeybees.

"The U.S. Postal Service recently released its 'Protect Pollinator' series, which features only the European honeybee and the monarch butterfly," said Wilson, assistant professor of biology. "A social media commenter observed that using these two species on a campaign to protect pollinators is akin to focusing on chickens to save birds. It's a pretty good comparison, actually."

Wilson, with colleagues Matthew Forister of the University of Nevada-Reno and Utah State alum Olivia Messinger Carril, published findings in the Sept. 5 online edition of Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment.

"In our recent survey, 99% of our respondents said bees are critical or important, yet only 14% were able to guess within 1,000, the actual number of bee species in the U.S.," he said. "Most people estimated around 50 species of bees, while the correct number is about 4,000 known species."

Further, when shown images of varied insects, many respondents were unable to discern bees from non-bees.

Credit: Joseph Wilson, Utah State University.

Which of these creatures are bees and which aren't? According to a survey led by Utah State University biologist Joseph Wilson, many people aren't sure. He found many people know about bee declines and know bees are important pollinators, but have little knowledge of the wide diversity of bee species in the U.S. (Utah State did not provide answers.)

"A challenge with lack of knowledge about bees is that you can't protect what you're now aware of," Wilson said. "We could be losing species or causing decline and not even know it."

Public education is key to bolstering conservation efforts, he said.

"Because conservation efforts require substantial public support, it's important that the public understand bees and what needs to be done to protect these species," Wilson said. "Education and outreach are key to understanding bee declines and protecting our pollinators."

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