Amazon Deforestation Threatens One of Brazil’s Key Pollinators, Study Shows

Orchid bees, crucial pollinators in tropical rainforests from Mexico to Brazil, have been under threat from land-use change for a decade. A recent study in the Amazonian state of Rondônia found that deforestation and agriculture have led to a decline in orchid bee abundance and diversity. The research, published in Biological Conservation, examined how land-use change affects orchid bee abundance, richness, and composition over time in various sites across the Amazonian state.

The region is known for its neotropical forests, cattle ranches, and production of coffee, cacao, beans, maize, and Brazil nuts. When an area is settled for human use, such as cattle grazing or agriculture, it is first deforested, opening up the canopy cover, leaving many species that rely on resource diversity unable to find what they need. In the case of orchid bees, which rely on many different food sources, the loss of plant resources becomes a major problem.

When data were collected in 1996-1997, Rondônia was among the most diverse regions for orchid bees worldwide. However, between 2000 and 2023, Rondônia lost 27% of its tree cover. Deforestation is not slowing down, with 127,301 deforestation alerts recorded in the state in just one week.

To determine how settlement, agriculture, and deforestation affect the species, researchers reviewed orchid bee surveys dating from September 1996 to September 1997. They collected bees from 130 sites around Rondônia, including specimens from two new, still unnamed species and four previously unrecorded species.

When comparing conserved land to disturbed areas before and after 1981, the researchers found the most orchid bees and highest species diversity in conserved land units. Areas settled more recently since 1981 were intermediate in terms of bee abundance and diversity, while older settlements had the lowest values for both.

Orchid bees are considered an indicator species for environmental conditions, as they need many different types of plants for foraging, nesting, and mating. The findings suggest that whether an area was settled for cattle and agriculture 10 years ago or 30, orchid bees may not be able to find the resources they need. Without healthy pollinators, the agricultural economy collapses alongside the wild ecosystems. If we’re losing these bees, chances are we’re losing a lot of other species.

A study conducted in the Amazon rainforest has found that orchid bees are essential for maintaining the survival of the Brazil nut, which is relied upon by 300,000 people throughout the region. The research, conducted at various sites and situations, provides an important baseline for biodiversity in the region, which could be compared to the current state of orchid bees as deforestation and agricultural expansion continue.

Taxonomist Marcio Luiz Oliveira from the National Institute of Amazonian Research in Brazil hopes to continue working with orchid bees in the Brazilian Amazon because many areas are still targeted for land development. He hopes to study bees in these areas before the devastation occurs.

The results of the study are expected to inspire other researchers to try different methods of measuring biodiversity. They hope that regular monitoring of these populations can help see the impacts of destruction on the biodiversity we rely on for our own survival and work with stakeholders to ensure these and other pollinators remain part of our lives.

Slowing deforestation and habitat fragmentation is essential to support existing and future populations and allow continued gene flow. For orchid bees, this includes the maintenance of flowers for perfume collection for mating. Pollinators are key to human survival, and understanding their importance can help people become more interested in learning more about their connection to the environment.

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