WASHINGTON --Pity the honeybee, hummingbird, and bat.
And possibly us.
A report issued today by the National Academy of Sciences said that the three species are "demonstrably" declining in the United States and Canada, and that their losses are affecting not just their populations -- but potentially parts of various ecosystems, including some parts of our food supply.
The birds, bees, and bats are pollinators, and nearly three-quarters of all flowering plants depend on them to spread pollen so that fertilization can occur, and fruits, nut and vegetables can grow.
The decline of pollinators "is one form of global change that actually has credible potential to alter the shape and structure of terrestrial ecosystems," May R. Berenbaum, chairperson of the committee that studied the issue, said in a statement.
The report did not attempt to measure the decline in the species. The 15 scientists brought together by the National Research Council -- a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, which advises the federal government and the public on scientific issues _ found that more information was urgently needed to document the extent of the population declines.
They called on donors to fund research to take a census of bees, birds, and bats; examine habitat loss; and to measure the effects of certain diseases on birds and bees.
The decline of the honeybee is well known among farmers. Honeybees were imported into the US last year for the first time since 1922, when the Honeybee Act banned those imports because of fear that non-native bees would carry parasites that could harm the environment.
Now, the honeybees' problem is directly linked to diseases from parasites imported by other means. The nation's commercial hives have declined by an estimated third.
In addition, all wild pollinators -- from bumblebees to butterflies to noctural moths -- have lost much of their habitat, due in part to the vast use of pesticides and herbicides that kill plants and hedges in which the insects and birds live.
Some scientists also believe that global warming may be playing a role in the decline of birds and bees, and the flowering plants that they keep alive. Under that reasoning -- the report's authors called it speculation for lack of proof -- slight increases in temperatures may be altering the migration patterns of bumblebees, while also causing plants to flower earlier in the season, thus throwing off the process of pollination.
The report's authors were careful to sound an alarm without calling it a crisis. Other reports in Europe have documented a sharp drop in pollinator numbers, attributed to disease and a loss of habitat.
"We're starting to see signals of pollinators declining. We don't know yet whether it is a looming crisis. But what we are seeing is very disturbing," Allison Snow, a committee member and professor of biology at Ohio State University, in a telephone interview from Columbus, Ohio.
Snow said the problem would not create a "food security" issue in the United States, as crops such as corn, wheat and soybean do not need the pollinators; wind does the job. But more than 90 fruits, vegetables, and nuts, as well as countless plants in yards and forests, in the US depend on bees, other insects, birds, and bats to start the fertilization process.
"We know how important these pollinators are, and if they disappeared, we would be in deep trouble," Snow said.
In addition to the call for more studies, the authors said that individual landowners could take action now to increase habitat for pollinators.
Gene E. Robinson, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said in a telephone interview that people could plant flowers and thereby create nearby habitats for wild bees. "Because these are tiny creatures, even small efforts on the parts of individual landowners can make a big difference," he said.
He also called for greater efforts to educate the public on pollinators.
"Even though we are talking about the birds and the bees, not many people know what the birds and bees really do," he said.
One leading educational organization is Monarch Watch, a Kansas-based group dedicated to protect the monarch butterfly.
Orley "Chip" Taylor, director of the group and an insect ecologist at the University of Kansas, said that the new report will help draw attention to the problem.
"The difficulty we have is understanding what we are doing to this planet," he said today in a telephone interview. "Certainly the simplest thing is to point to habitat destruction -- we're losing 3,000 to 4,000 acres a day in this country to development. But herbicides also take out a lot of the plants that pollinators depend on. We're not monitoring ourselves really well. We're having significant impacts that we are totally oblivious to." John Donnelly can be reached at email@example.com