A record 2010 cold snap in Miami that wiped out coral, devastated manatees and adorned trees with frozen iguanas had another victim: tropical bees.
In a study published Thursday in Ecosphere, Florida International University researchers reported that the January chill decimated non-native tropical bees. Native bees, however, managed to weather the weather, helping biologists better understand the species’ range.
The findings, said lead author Jason Downing, provide important clues about how ecosystems, and not just individual species, could be affected by climate change.
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“Disruptions in the interactions between species can alter community structure and dynamics,” he said, which can lead to changes in the delicate balance between plants and animals.
For the study, Downing focused on two oil collecting bees that help pollinate plants including native locustberry and orchids. Florida has its own species of the bee, but about 2008, researchers documented the arrival of a cousin, native to Central and South America and Mexico. Researchers pay attention to bees because they play a key role in pollinating crops. More problematic, however, is that nonnative bees can help spread invasive plants.
The cold spell provided a rare opportunity for researchers to look at the pollinators.
The January front that swept through the region went down as one of the worst on record. At the time, biologists equated the environmental damage it caused to a hurricane or wildfire. In the Everglades, they counted at least 70 dead crocodiles and about 60 manatees. Everglades National Park staff reported it was the worst they’d seen in decades, but left them a little hopeful that it might help control some tropical interlopers like the Burmese python. It did not.
But understanding the effects of such extreme cold, the study theorized, could in the future help researchers better predict where species might expand. While lots of research has focused on warming temperatures, and the more pressing problems they cause including rising sea levels and increased droughts, less is known about cold.
That information could be particularly important in areas on the border between subtropical and tropical like South Florida, the study said. And in this case, bees could help connect the dots with invasive plants’ spread.
“Understanding how species respond to extreme cold events at the leading and trailing edges of range expansions,” the study found, “provides the best insights into the likelihood of species adapting to the ongoing climate change.”
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