Pollinators feed us
By Sabiha Malik
Founder of The World Bee Project CIC
As global populations rise, food production increases every year. As a result, in the last 50 years, global agriculture's reliance on pollinator-dependent crops has increased in volume by more than 300 %. As global agriculture becomes increasingly pollinator-dependent, studies of several crops show that production declines when bees decline. As concerned inhabitants of this planet, we need to understand the importance of pollination to our food supply.
Bees are not the only pollinators
We have 20,077 wild bee species in the world. The few species of bees humans manage are the western honey bee (Apis Mellifera), native to Western Asia, Europe and Africa but spread around the globe by beekeepers and queen breeders, and eastern honey bee (Apis Cerana); some bumble bees, some stingless bees and a few solitary bee species. Other pollinating insects include butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles, weevils, thrips, ants, midges some species of flies. Animals such as bats, birds, primates, marsupials, reptiles, and rodents also pollinate. Pollinators pollinate when they visit flowers to collect or feed on nectar and pollen. When they fly from flower to flower, pollen adheres to their bodies. It is transferred from the male to the female parts of flowers, enabling plant fertilisation and reproduction. Most cultivated and wild plants depend, at least in part, on 'animal' pollinators to transfer pollen. Still, other means of pollen transfer, such as self-pollination or wind pollination, are also necessary. Pollination by bees and other pollinators ('animal pollination') is directly responsible for foods that supply essential micronutrients, such as vitamin A and iron folate, that we depend on to remain in good health. Hunger and malnutrition worldwide depend on diverse nutritional requirements, not on calories alone, but on the nutritional value of nuts, fruits, and vegetables.
Pollinator diversity ensures stable crop production.
We know that diverse pollinator communities are more likely to provide stable, sufficient pollination because pollinator species have different food preferences, foraging behaviour and activity patterns. Therefore, crop production is higher in fields with diverse and abundant pollinator communities. Wild pollinators, for some crops, contribute more to global crop production than honey bees. Managed honey bees cannot compensate fully for the loss of wild pollinators, are often less effective pollinators of many crops and can only sometimes be supplied in sufficient numbers to meet pollination demand in many countries.
A diversity of pollination options, including wild and managed species, is needed in most open field systems, where weather and environment can be unpredictable. Certain wild pollinator species are dominant. For example, we estimate that 80 % of global crop pollination is attributed to the activities of just 2 % of wild bee species.
Pollinators are income earners.
Bees visit more than 90 % of the leading global crop types. Many of the world's most important cash crops benefit from animal pollination in yield and quality. Moreover, they are leading export products in developing countries (e.g., coffee and cocoa) and developed countries (e.g., almonds), providing employment and income for millions of people. We estimate the annual market value of global food production directly linked with pollination services is $235 billion‒$577 billion worldwide.
Beekeeping provides an essential source of income for many rural livelihoods. Apis mellifera, the western honey bee, is the most widely managed pollinator in the world. About 81 million hives globally produce an estimated 1.6 million tons of honey annually.
Diverse Farming techniques for agro-biodiversity are essential.
Diversified farming systems, some linked to indigenous and local knowledge, represent an essential pollinator-friendly addition to industrial agriculture. Smallholdings (less than 2 hectares) constitute about 8‒16 % of global farmland and foster agro-biodiversity and pollination through activities like crop rotation, the promotion of habitat at diverse stages of succession, diversity and abundance of floral resources, ongoing incorporation of wild resources and inclusion of tree canopy species. Innovations in apiaries, swarm capture and pest control are also helpful. Adaptation to social-environmental change, for example, by incorporating new invasive bee species and pollination resources into farming practices, is essential. Although these areas extend over 30 % of forests in developing countries, we don't know enough about their location, status, and patterns.
Pollinators are under threat.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List assessments, 16.5 % of vertebrate pollinators are threatened with global extinction (increasing to 30 % for island species). There are no international Red List assessments specifically for insect pollinators. However, regional and national assessments indicate high threat levels for some bees and butterflies. For example, 9 % of bee and butterfly species in Europe are in threat of decline. Populations are declining for 37% of bees and 31 % of butterflies (excluding data-deficient species, which includes 57 %of bees). Where national Red List assessments are available, they show that often more than 40 % of bee species may be threatened.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sabiha Malik founded The World Bee Project CIC in 2014 to utilise AI and novel technologies to initiate a global perspective, addressing pollinator and biodiversity decline, food insecurity, climate change and threats to human wellbeing as a single interactive, interconnected challenge confronting humanity. Sabiha believes that bees lie at the heart of the relationships that bind the natural and human worlds, and in safeguarding bees lies the means to safeguard life itself.