When you think of bees, you may think of them as some sort of nuisance, pestering you in the warmer months of the year. Yet bees are a crucial part to keeping our world’s food supply going — and bees aren’t the only ones working hard out there.
There are many types of pollinators: bees, butterflies, birds, bats, beetles, moths, ants, and even wasps. It is said that about 75% of all flowering plants need these pollinators to survive, and there are over 200,000 species that act as pollinators.
Bees, however, are one of the most important pollinators to our commercial farming industry — and they have been reported to be responsible for pollinating over $20 billion in US crops per year, as of 2011. They help with crops that we are all very familiar with: apples, berries, cucumbers, almonds, chocolate, coffee, cotton, and more. And that isn’t even including what honey bees produce in honey, which has been reported to be around $150 million annually, as of 2011.
The global economic impact is even higher. In an article by NPR, it was quoted that “the annual value of global crops directly affected by pollinators ranges from $235 billion to $577 billion.” All over the world, at least 1,000 plants that are grown and used for food, drink, fibers, spices, and medicines, rely on pollination by these sorts of animals.
Unfortunately, recent studies have determined a not-so-bright future for these extremely necessary animals. A report was released by The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which operates under the U.N., and it compiled information from over 3,000 scientific papers. The studies were primarily based in North America and Europe, and the report “includes information about practices based on indigenous and local knowledge from more than 60 locations around the world.”
This global assessment of pollinators determined that around 40% of invertebrate pollinator species (like bees, butterflies, etc.) are facing extinction, and about 16% of vertebrate pollinators are close to extinction.
Those are alarming statistics, and those numbers potentially pose an enormous problem to our global food supply. So why is this even happening?
There are multiple driving forces that are pushing these animals to a very near end for their species. The disappearance of many of these pollinators is thought to be mostly caused by: changes in land use over time, new diseases, invasive species, intensive agricultural practices, climate change, and excessive pesticide use.
Did you notice the list of pollinated crops earlier in the article included chocolate? A leading expert on the cacao plant, Allen Young, said that “a tiny fly no bigger than the head of a pin is responsible for the world’s supply of chocolate.” Apparently, these tiny flies that come from the rain forest are the only animals capable of getting through the cacao flower and pollinating it. So without this fly, there is no chocolate. Who wants to live in a world without chocolate?
A problem like this tends to never have a simple solution, and this is no exception. Unfortunately, this report found that people all over were using less practices based on their local and indigenous knowledge, and instead a great shift has been made toward these very intense agricultural styles. They saw less “traditional farming systems; maintenance of diverse landscapes and gardens; kinship relationships that protect specific pollinators; and cultures and languages that are connected to pollinators.”
While this isn’t a problem that can be fixed overnight, there is a lot we can do as a global community to reduce the threats that exist for these pollinators. We should push for sustainable agriculture with diverse habitats, use a combination of local knowledge and science to create a healthy pollinator environment, reduce the use of pesticides, and better regulate the trade and use of commercial pollinators to minimize risk of disease.
As an individual, you can also help support pollinators right from your own home. You can keep a variety of flowering plants in your gardens that are native to your area; this can help supply our pollinators with nectar, pollen, and homes. You can also opt to decrease or take out altogether any pesticide use in your gardens and yards. Also, get involved with your local town and city government if they are trying to build on valuable green spaces, and overdevelop your town.
These pollinators can’t speak for themselves, so we have to take a stand for them! And it’s not just for them — because if we didn’t have them, we wouldn’t have all of this wonderful food to put on our tables.