Why are bees like Bactrian camels? Because they both have two humps!

It was eminent bee biologist Charles Michener who first* pointed out that there was something odd about the global distribution of bees. In his 1979 paper Biogeography of the bees he writes:

“unlike many groups which abound in the tropics, bees attain their greatest abundance in warm temperate areas”

Think about that for a moment: in contrast to most other groups of insects, birds, mammals, flowering plants, fish, indeed the majority of the Earth’s biodiversity, bees are NOT generally at their most species rich in tropical areas. Rather, we have to move north and south of the equator to find them at their highest diversity. This is an odd pattern of distribution for such a successful (> 20,000 species), globally widespread and ecologically important group of organisms.

Some 15 years ago I was inspired by Michener’s comments when, together with colleagues Steve Johnson and Andrew Hingston, we wrote a chapter called Geographical variation in diversity and specificity of pollination systems for the 2006 Waser & Ollerton edited volume Plant-pollinator Interactions: from Specialization to Generalization. In that chapter we presented a rough analysis of how bee diversity per unit area in different countries changes with latitude. This, and a follow-up that appeared in my 2017 Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics paper, confirmed Michener’s view that there’s an unusual relationship between bee diversity and latitude, with peak species richness outside of the tropics, in warm, dry environments.

What I really hoped over this time was that some serious bee biologists would follow up Michener’s insights and produce a full analysis of how bee diversity changes across the planet. Yesterday that hope was realised when Michael Orr, Alice Hughes, Douglas Chesters, John Pickering, Chao-Dong Zhu and John Ascher published the first analysis of bee diversity across the whole planet, and its underlying causes, in their open-access paper Global Patterns and Drivers of Bee Distribution.

Their analyses are based on a data set of >5,800,000 records of where bees occur and it’s been an incredible achievement to bring all of that together into a planet-wide view of where bees are found, and why. I highly recommend that you download and read it, it’s an impressive piece of work.

What have camels got to do with all of this? Well, as the authors show in their paper (from which the image above is taken), if you graph up the increase in bee species richness with latitude from the poles in each hemisphere, you get two humps at about 35 degrees north and south of the equator: like a Bactrian camel. In contrast, as I noted above, if you were to do the same for for most other species you’d get a single hump at the equator: like a dromedary camel.

One of the key drivers of this bimodal pattern seems to be the amount of rainfall in an environment – bees do not like it too wet, in contrast to their relatives the ants which do show the more typical tropical peak in diversity. As the authors put it:

“humidity may play a key role in limiting bee distribution, such as through spoilage of pollen resources”

One of the implications of this for the biogeography of plant-pollinator interactions is that we might expect there to be a greater diversity of different types of pollinators in areas where bees are not so abundant. And indeed that is exactly what we find: in that Ollerton, Johnson and Hingston book chapter I mentioned we showed that there’s a step-change in the diversity of functionally specialised pollination systems as one moves from the sub-tropics into the tropics. There could be many reason for that but I suspect that one is a relative lack of bees compared to the number of plants species; thus you get tropical “oddities” such as specialised cockroach pollination in some plants.

Orr et al.’s paper is a milestone in bee biogeography and opens up new opportunities for conserving these insects, and their vital relationships with the flowering plants. To give just one example: these analyses provide a framework for predicting bee diversity hotspots in parts of the world that have been poorly explored by bee taxonomists, but which are nevertheless severely threatened by habitat degradation and conversion to agriculture. It could also be used for predicting how climate change might affect future bee distributions, especially in parts of the world that are expected to become wetter. I’m looking forward to seeing how the team’s work develops in the future.


*It’s always risky to state “first”, but Michener was certainly the first that I am aware of. Let me know if you’ve come across any precedents.


Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biogeography, China, Climate change, Evolution, Pollination

4 responses to “Why are bees like Bactrian camels? Because they both have two humps!

  1. I noticed years ago that global distribution of bumble bees was very skewed to the Northern Hemisphere and that they were clearly a cool climate group. I thought it was interesting, but it hadn’t occurred to me that bees in general have this even more interesting distribution.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Fascinating! Hopefully, bees won’t be wiped out with predicted higher temperatures and more rain. I wonder what the tipping point would be?

    Liked by 2 people

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