Reintroducing Bee-like Species to Collapsing Ecosystems

CEE Distinguished Professor Auroop Ganguly and Assistant Professor Tarik Gouhier conclude that honeybees are the simplest and most effective species to reintroduce to ecosystems collapsing from climate change. Their research was published in the journal Communications Biology.

This article originally appeared on Northeastern Global News. It was published by Cody Mello-Klein. Main photo: The loss of a keystone species can result in the collapse of an entire ecosystem. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Honeybees are key to biodiversity. Researchers say ecosystems collapsing because of climate change have bee-like species that can be reintroduced

There are very few animals as important to our world as honeybees. There is, of course, the delicious honey they produce, but they are also essential in maintaining food security and preserving the biodiversity that is threatened by climate change and fast-becoming our strongest natural defense against it.

But with the planet facing a climate change-induced loss of biodiversity, what happens when honeybees die?

New Northeastern University research aims to help address the impending biodiversity crisis. The researchers say they have found a new strategy for restoring lost biodiversity by identifying the equivalent of a honeybee in different ecosystems and reintroducing it into a particular collapsing ecosystem.

The term used by ecologists is keystone species, because they essentially hold an ecosystem together.

“Our work essentially gives us an interesting way to bring network science together with dynamics to address the problem that many researchers have been highlighting regarding the extinction of species, reintroduction of species, how to identify keystone species, at what level we should be collecting that data and what to do if our ecosystems are data poor,” says Udit Bhatia, author on the paper who started this work at Northeastern before graduating in 2018 with a PhD  in civil and environmental engineering.

The team of researchers also includes Auroop Ganguly, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern and director of AI4CaS (AI for Climate and Sustainability) within Northeastern’s Institute for Experiential AI; Tarik Gouhier, associate professor of marine and environmental sciences at Northeastern; and Sarth Dubey, Bhatia’s colleague at the Indian Institute of Technology.

In ecology, the quest to find keystone species has been elusive, Ganguly says. Traditionally, ecologists have focused on more complex, “higher order topological” factors to help explain which species should be reintroduced to help recover biodiversity, according to Bhatia. There is, for example, what Bhatia calls “betweenness,” the idea that a keystone species is one that is most important to the flow of the network. It is “in between” the most species in an ecosystem’s network.

Auroop Ganguly

Auroop Ganguly, professor of of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

But the networked method they’ve developed says the simplest answer might actually be the best one.

“What our findings essentially suggest is that the ecologically most obvious answer –– the species which are most connected –– may be the ones that result in the fastest gain,” Bhatia says.

For this paper, they analyzed 30 real-world plant-pollinator ecosystems around the world and also simulated 27 synthetic ecosystems with attributes that were not covered by the 30 real-world examples to find the best restoration strategy. Bhatia says they viewed each species of plant and pollinator in an ecosystem as an individual node in a broader network, with connections running between them.

Read full story at Northeastern Global News

Related Faculty: Auroop R. Ganguly, Tarik Gouhier

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering