Pollination: Food needs bugs and beasts!

Think farming is a way of producing food that only needs people? Think again! If it weren’t for wild bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, bats and other animals helping us pollinate our crops, the world would surely go hungry. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), of the more than 100 crop species that provide 90 per cent of food for most of the world’s countries, more than 70 per cent are pollinated by bees. But it’s not just bees: other insects – moths, flies, wasps, beetles and butterflies – as well as birds and mammals, are necessary for the reproductive process of most of the world’s flowering plants, including more than two-thirds of food plants.

Until recently, we’ve taken this essential, valuable and freely provided service for granted. Animal pollinators have done their job so invisibly and well that, in many cases, we don’t even know the full extent of the role they play. But now there’s evidence that pollinator populations are declining, threatening farmers’ livelihoods and putting pressure on world food security.

Not all flowering plants require animals for pollination – some, such as cereals, are pollinated by wind – but for those that do, seed production is affected, as well as fruit development: watermelons that are more frequently visited by pollinators have better colour and flavour, for example. And so harvests are affected: a study of Costa Rican coffee ecosystems showed that pollination by wild bees living in nearby forest contributed to 20 per cent higher yields. And pollinator-plant relationships affect food prices: vanilla is expensive because when cultivated outside Mexico, it must be pollinated by hand, as it’s away from its natural pollinator, the Melipona bee.

Today, evidence shows that all over the world, pollinator populations are in decline. Honeybee populations in Europe and North America are collapsing, and many wild bee colonies are vanishing. European butterflies are threatened by intensive agricultural methods and changing land-use practices. Many mammal and bird pollinators are considered threatened or extinct, too, including at least 45 species of bats, 36 species of non-flying mammals, 26 species of hummingbirds and 70 species of perching birds.

Recognizing that there’s much we don’t know about the state of pollinators, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in 2002 established an International Initiative for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Pollinators. The FAO leads the initiative, running a programme to gather data on plant pollination needs, trends in pollinator populations, what they require in terms of habitat and corridors, identifying and promoting alternatives to negative human impacts associated with land-use practices, pesticides, and so on. This information is used to encourage pollinator-friendly practices to help ensure they thrive. One thing’s certain: while it’s difficult to put a dollar value on the services animal pollinators provide, we now recognize we simply can’t do without them.

(c) Nancy-Adamson_Xerces-Society_USDAgov

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This post is also available in: French, Spanish