SALT LAKE CITY — Despite an intense public information campaign about the importance of pollinators, a new study says few people know little about bees beyond the honeybee and bumblebee.
The Utah State University-led study, published online Tuesday in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, said 99 percent of people surveyed deemed bees "critical or very important," but only 14 percent were able to guess within 1,000 of the actual number of bee species in the United States.
According to the study, the median number of bee species people said occur in the United States was 50, when the actual number is approximately 4,000.
Utah State ecologist researcher Joseph Wilson said the information gap is a missed opportunity to educate the public about the importance of all bees — not just the popular honeybee or bumblebee.
The U.S. Postal Service, as an example, released its "Protect Pollinator" series of stamps featuring only the European honeybee and monarch butterfly.
"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," said Wilson, an ecologist and assistant professor of biology at the USU campus in Tooele County. "It’s a pretty good comparison, actually.”
The survey, which tapped 1,427 respondents in the analysis, was performed via social media outreach, word-of-mouth, and online platforms at universities.
The study notes that a growing community of naturalists, environmentalists and concerned members of the public are engaged in ongoing interest to "save the bees," but results indicate a significant gap between people's intentions and their knowledge.
Over the years, the number of studies and other published information detailing colony collapse disorder and disappearing pollinator populations is on the increase, building awareness about the important role the species plays.
However, Wilson and other researchers Matthew Forister, of the University of Nevada-Reno, and USU alumna Olivia Messinger Carril, found that most people are not aware of, and therefore unable to recognize, the diversity of species around them.
"Because media attention has almost exclusively focused on the honeybee over the last 15 years, it is not perhaps surprising that most people have not been given the opportunity to learn about the other kinds of bees," the study notes.
"While a focus on the honeybee has drawn attention to the importance of pollination services, it has not advanced advocacy for native wild bees."
The study emphasizes that practicing land stewardship that accommodates wild bees — at any scale — is not possible unless the stewards are informed.
“A challenge with lack of knowledge about bees is you can’t protect what you’re not aware of,” Wilson says. “We could be losing species or causing decline and not even know it.”
Public education is key to bolstering conservation efforts, he added.
“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.”