Pollinators and Food Security

Pollinators – such as bees, birds and various types of insects that fly, hop or crawl from one flower to another – have for centuries been the invisible helpers of farmers worldwide. Different types of bees have distinct tastes and roles to play in the food system. Bumble bees, for example, are one of the few types of bees that can successfully pollinate tomatoes, which heavily rely on buzz pollination to bear fruit.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has highlighted the publication of a new study that quantifies, for the first time, how much crop yields depend on the work of bees that unknowingly fertilize plants as they move from flower to flower. The agency believes bees may have a key role to play in improving food production of some two billion smallholder farmers worldwide and ensuring the food security and nutrition of the world’s growing population.

A new study by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) that was released giving a detailed assessment regarding pollinators during its fourth plenary in Malaysia points that important invertebrate pollinator species, like the honeybee and butterfly, are under a threat of extinction due to a number of environmental pressures, many of them man-made. The results of this study come from a two-year, United Nations-sponsored study conducted by the panel.

The health of the world’s agricultural food supply is under threat occasioned by this scenario. The plants under this risk include fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and oils. A decrease in production of these important nutrition sources is likely to have adverse effects on the population with possibilities of increased malnutrition and the loss of up to $577 billion globally, the IPBES warned. Vera Lucia Imperatriz-Fonseca, the co-chair of the assessment said that pollinators are important contributors to world food production and nutritional security, and that their health is directly linked to our own well-being. The assessment saw 16 percent of vertebrate pollinators like bats and birds are threatened with total extinction. About 40 percent of invertebrate species like bees and butterflies are said to be threatened on a local level.

IPBES Vice Chair Sir Robert Watson says that the wild pollinators in certain regions, especially bees and butterflies, are being threatened by a variety of factors and that their decline is primarily due to changes in land use, intensive agricultural practices and pesticide use, alien invasive species, diseases and pests, and climate change. Despite the grim report’s findings about threats to the animals, it also includes suggestions on how to safeguard further damage on their populations. Sustainable agricultural practices are at the top of the list of options, alongside crop rotation, education, pathogen control and decreasing use of pesticides.

Achim Steiner, director of the United Nations Environment Programme asserts that the growing threat to pollinators, which play an important role in food security, provides another compelling example of how connected people are to our environment and how deeply entwined our fate is with that of the natural world. As the world work towards food security, it is important to approach the challenge with a consideration of the environmental impacts that drive the issue. Sustainable development, including improving food security for the world’s population, necessitates an approach that embraces the environment.

In the report by FAO, a press release posed a question on what do cucumbers, mustard, almonds and alfalfa have in common. Superficially, very little; but there is one thing they share: they all owe their existence to the service of bees. The agency notes that for centuries, this tiny striped helper has labored the world’s fields without winning much recognition for its many contributions to food production. Wild bees, in particular, seemed doomed to slog in the shadow of their more popular cousin – the honeybee – whose day job of producing golden nectar has been far more visible and celebrated.

But FAO says bees of all stripes are finally getting their moment in the sun. The paper, published in the magazine Science, makes the case that ecological intensification – or boosting farm outputs by tapping the power of natural processes – is one of the sustainable pathways toward greater food supplies. Food security strategies worldwide could therefore benefit from including pollination as integral component, experts say.

Barbara Gemmill-Herren, one of the FAO authors of the report says that the research shows that improving pollinator density and diversity – in other words, making sure that more and more different types of bees and insects are coming to your plants – has direct impact on crop yields. This is practically good for the environment and for food security adding that it is beneficial to actively preserve and build habitats in and around farms for bees, birds and insects to live year-round.

Small scale farmers benefit

In the field study coordinated by FAO, scientists compared 344 plots across Africa, Asia and Latin America and concluded that crop yields were significantly lower in farming plots that attracted fewer bees during the main flowering season than in those plots that received more visits. When comparing high-performing and low-performing farms of less than two hectares, the outcomes suggest that poorly performing farms could increase their yields by a median of 24 per cent by attracting more pollinators to their land.


The research also explored larger plots and concluded that, while those fields also benefited from more pollinator visits, the impact on yields was less significant than in the smaller plots – probably because many bees have a harder time servicing large fields, far from their nesting habitat. But a diversity of bees, each with different flight capacities, can make the difference. This suggests that bee diversity offers benefits both for small-holder farmers in developing countries, and for larger farms.

Importance of the findings

The research comes at a time when wild bees are threatened by a multitude of factors and managed bee populations can’t keep up with the increasing number of plots that grow pollination-dependent crops. Nadine Azzu, Global Project Coordinator in FAO’s Plant Production and Protection Division, who also worked on the report says that climate change poses yet another problem in that Bees will struggle with the higher temperatures and in addition that flowers in some parts of the world are now opening at different times than they used to, and the bees are not there to pollinate. This means finding ways to keep pollinators buzzing around the farm year-round is becoming even more important.

Honey bees, in turn, are important because they are the least picky in their choice of flowers- and there are many of them, in each hive, even though their more discerning wild bee cousins are more effective in fertilizing the plants they’re attracted to. The study shows that for smallholdings, crop yield increased linearly with increased visits to the flowers that were being tracked. Pollination was the agricultural input that contributed the greatest to yields, beyond other management practices.

This holds promise for one of the major agricultural challenges of our time: How to help smallholders produce more without hurting the environment.

Maintaining habitat and forage resources all year long is key to wooing pollinators and keeping them on the land for longer periods of time. This can be done by planting different trees and plants that flower at different times in the year, for example.
Maintaining flowering hedge rows around the farm, and mulch on the ground that bees can hide under, are additional recommended tactics to attract them, as is reducing the use of pesticides.