1. Wild bees are one of the most important groups of pollinators in the temperate zone. Therefore, population declines have potentially negative impacts for both crop and wildflower pollination. Although heavy metal pollution is recognized to be a problem affecting large parts of the European Union, we currently lack insights into the effects of heavy metals on wild bees.
2. We investigated whether heavy metal pollution is a potential threat to wild bee communities by comparing (i) species number, (ii) diversity and (iii) abundance as well as (iv) natural mortality of emerging bees along two independent gradients of heavy metal pollution, one at Olkusz (OLK), Poland and the other at Avonmouth (AVO), UK. We used standardized nesting traps to measure species richness and abundance of wild bees, and we recorded the heavy metal concentration in pollen collected by the red mason bee Osmia rufa as a measure of pollution.
3. The concentration of cadmium, lead and zinc in pollen collected by bees ranged from a background level in unpolluted sites [OLK: 1·3, 43·4, 99·8 (mg kg−1); AVO: 0·8, 42·0, 56·0 (mg kg−1), respectively] to a high level on sites in the vicinity of the OLK and AVO smelters [OLK: 6·7, 277·0, 440·1 (mg kg−1); AVO: 9·3, 356·2, 592·4 (mg kg−1), respectively].
4. We found that with increasing heavy metal concentration, there was a steady decrease in the number, diversity and abundance of solitary, wild bees. In the most polluted sites, traps were empty or contained single occupants, whereas in unpolluted sites, the nesting traps collected from 4 to 5 species represented by up to ten individuals. Moreover, the proportion of dead individuals of the solitary bee Megachile ligniseca increased along the heavy metal pollution gradient at OLK from 0·2 in uncontaminated sites to 0·5 in sites with a high concentration of pollution.
5. Synthesis and applications. Our findings highlight the negative relationship between heavy metal pollution and populations of wild bees and suggest that increasing wild bee richness in highly contaminated areas will require special conservation strategies. These may include creating suitable nesting sites and sowing a mixture of flowering plants as well as installing artificial nests with wild bee cocoons in polluted areas. Applying protection plans to wild pollinating bee communities in heavy metal-contaminated areas will contribute to integrated land rehabilitation to minimize the impact of pollution on the environment.