Student Research: Pollinators – The New Buzzword?

“Pollinator Declines: Impacts on Biodiversity and Agriculture”

By Stephanye Zarama-Alvarado

Think of the evolution of life. Imagine how diverse species have blossomed since Precambrian times and how they fit together to create a delicate ecological balance on our planet. Though hominids have been in the natural world for millions of years, modern humans only began to evolve around 200,000 years ago. And while we have always used and modified nature for our own benefit in order to survive, it has taken only two centuries of capitalist expansion to alter the equilibrium of the natural world, potentially causing its slow destruction with the extinction of several species. Indeed, we have become the dominant species on Earth causing ecological changes on a global scale.

As a biologist specialized in ecology, I have become increasingly concerned about the intensification of anthropogenic activities and their drastic adverse effects on biodiversity and human health over the years. I am all too aware of how many studies have shown that the majority of these consequences is irreversible; how they influence the provision of ecosystem services, resulting in serious problems in productive sectors that affect social progress and economic welfare. One of the issues that has caught my attention most, however, is the threat to pollinators.

Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) on Cockscomb (Celosia argentea). Photo: Stephanye Zarama-Alvarado.

Thanks to Rudolf Jakob Camerarius and Charles Darwin, I learned as a child that for a viable seed to be produced, pollination has to take place: the process in which pollen is transferred to the female reproductive organs of seed plants in order to fertilize an ovule. This vital process creates an extraordinary symbiosis between plants and animals, offering predominant mutualistic benefits from an ecological perspective. Abiotic (water or wind) and biotic (animal) vectors often assist in spreading pollen; for example, the pollination of flowering plants (known as angiosperms) is principally carried out by insects. Yet, despite being taught about the great importance of pollination, we have failed to scale back on activities that are causing a decline in pollinators across the globe.

Humankind has come to recognize the great ecological and economic importance of bees in particular in agro-ecosystems. In fact, the agricultural industry uses predominantly European honey bees as pollinators, and much of the food we consume today relies directly or indirectly on bee pollination. But what about the other thousands of pollinating species on this planet, such as wild bees, beetles, butterflies, flies, moths, and wasps? What about the many vertebrates, such as bats, birds, coatis, monkeys, olingos, rodents, and squirrels that contribute substantially to the world food economy and the maintenance of ecological processes?

Hummingbird (Eulampis jugularis) on a lobster-claw plant (Heliconia Wagneriana). Photo: Lisa Bauer.

In 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) classified pollination as a regulating ecosystem service that plays an essential role in the production of the world’s food, providing economic, ecological, and health benefits to agriculture, biodiversity, and human populations. Despite its great importance, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), under the auspices of United Nations (UN), released the first scientific report on the state of pollinators only at the beginning of 2016. The assessment, entitled “Thematic Assessment of Pollinators, Pollination, and Food Production,” promotes the essential function of pollinators, warns of the threats both wild and domesticated pollinators face, and highlights the strategies we should implement to protect them. This report has principally set alarm bells ringing about the need to protect pollinators, given the considerable hazard to global public health and food security, which could have an impact on ecological and economic development.

For instance, a rapid decline in pollination services could result in a global food crisis, given high global demands on food by an ever-growing population. Competitiveness in the agribusiness sector could also suffer because of food production quality and concomitant consequences on health.

The UN assessment reports that animal pollination accounts for the production of nearly 90% of all flowering plants, and insect pollination in particular contributes to 75% of principal crop species yields and 35% of world crop production for our consumption. The monetary value of this contribution is estimated at between US$235 billion and US$577 billion per annum globally, representing between 5% and 8% of the total value of our food production. Therefore, preserving our plant and pollinator diversity also means maintaining our food diversity.

Cultivation of Tobacco plant (Nicotina tabacum) in Central America. Photo: Stephanye Zarama-Alvarado.

We must also be aware of the effects of reduced or inadequate pollination on the regeneration of natural vegetation and ecosystem health, which pose additional risks to human welfare. The assessment found that various factors have contributed to the extinction of a number of pollinators, including:  the introduction of nonnative pollinators and plants that generate unfavorable competition, loss and fragmentation of natural habitats, intensive agriculture, the dominance of monocultures, disturbances caused by the increased use of pesticides and herbicides, the spread of pathogens, the increase of viruses and parasites, trade practices, the decline of practices based on indigenous and local knowledge, genetically modified crops, and, ultimately, climate change.

We need to generate environmental solutions to protect pollinators. This will depend on the coordinated actions of individual governments, along with global and regional assessments conducted by global bodies on the state of pollination and pollinators. Various conservation plans have already been initiated both in developing countries, where Green Revolution solutions have been developed from peasant systems, and in developed countries, where agribusiness research and technological development prevails. However, there are other alternatives that we may implement to hinder the decline of pollinators without favoring or neglecting any one agricultural system. According to the UN assessment, these include protecting natural areas and diversifying the landscape, developing diverse and sustainable forms of agriculture, identifying the specific effects of individual pesticides, minimizing the introduction of invasive species, combating the spread of disease between pollinators, and mitigating climate change.

The initiatives that have been put into practice in developed countries value and actively work to preserve pollination services, working to reduce rapid loss phenomena and negative transformations in agriculture and human health. The development of conservation plans in developing countries is our next challenge, considering that these regions are characterized by socioeconomic inequalities and an absence of state policy that guaranties sustainability of the pollination service. Tropical countries, some of the most biodiversity-rich territories in the world due to their location and geographical characteristics, depend even more than other nations on the health of their ecosystems. In fact, many of these crops depend on wild pollinators—plants like bananas, cocoa, oil palms, coffee, and many flowers, as well as the production of domestic fruit consumed by humans such as citrus, mango, peach palm, avocado, papaya, passion fruit, guava, and soursop. That is why the agro-ecological design of crops to maintain their habitat is such an important step to ensure volume and quality of food production.

Cauliflower (Brassica oleracea) farming in Central America. Photo: Stephanye Zarama-Alvarado.

Some tropical and subtropical countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, such as Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, India, Nepal, and Brazil, have recently started to implement different conservation plans with the help of global bodies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The FAO has established the Global Pollination Project as an opportunity to develop specific plans of action on pollination services for sustainable agriculture. These are providing the tools necessary for the use and conservation of pollinators and assistance in formulating policies that ensure the sustainability of these ecosystem services.

Mitigating the potential consequences of reduced pollinators on the conservation of biodiversity and on food crop stability must be a priority. We need to develop and carry out effective management plans based on rigorous qualitative and quantitative research in developed and underdeveloped countries. The successful management of pollination services depends on policymaking, adaptive and good practice management frameworks, and an adequate methodology for designing programs and making decisions. There is a lot of work to be done—our efforts to combat the global threat of pollinator declines are still in their infancy. We must take care of the provision of ecosystem services if we are to restore the ecological balance and build a better future for our planet.



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