Pollinator decline – an expression of the biodiversity crisis

After dealing with the interesting parts of pollination, unfortunately, we also have to address the less uplifting part of it: pollinator decline. I hope that within this series, I gave you an idea of how important pollinators (not only bees) are. How beautiful and fascinating. Though I think that biodiversity is a value by itself and, therefore, worth protecting, it’s in our own interest to do so. The first of the Millennium goals is “Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger”. Food security and quality depends on pollination. But also the goals “reduce child mortality” and “improve maternal health” are partly linked to nutrition. And, therefore, to pollination.

How are pollinators doing around the world?

Unfortunately, pollinator declines are real. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Plattform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published an assessment in 2016, which is the most extensive one to date. However, it shows also a severe problem: we have good data on declines of wild pollinators in Northwestern Europe and North America. In other regions of the world, the situation is less clear. In Latin America, Africa, Asia and Oceania there aren’t sufficient data to give a general picture. At a local scale, pollinators are declining, as some studies suggest. However, we know only little about the distribution and abundance of the pollinators in these regions. Or even the species themselves.

Even staying in Europe, don’t know enough. As I mentioned above, good data on pollinator decline exist mainly for Northwestern Europe. But, the biodiversity, including pollinators, increases to the South. So what about Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece? I heard some good presentations from projects to help pollinators in agricultural landscape in Southern Europe, but in general the species remain not identified. The huge diversity in Southern Europe makes it difficult to address all species in the field and, in addition, the diversity in natural habitat is understudied. An example: in Europe, 9% of the bee and butterfly species are threatened according to IPBES. The populations (i.e. the occurrence and abundance) declined 37% and 31%, respectively. But: this statistics doesn’t include the data deficient species, which are alone 57% of the bee species. Quite scary, to be honest.

What are the reasons for pollinator decline?

Looking at the general public perception, agriculture is the main responsible for pollinator decline, especially the use of pesticides. And within these, especially neonicotinoids that are blamed for harming pollinators. In fact, the EFSA just confirmed the risk for bees from these substances. In these days, the European Commission will decide on the future of these substances. But, and here comes the bad news, I’m quite convinced that even with a ban this will not “save the bees”. Because, unfortunately, the problem is much more complex than this.

There are several factors that threaten pollinators. Pesticide use is only one of them. Others are land-use change, intense agricultural management, environmental pollution, invasive alien species, pathogens and climate change. Many of these factors involve agriculture directly (like intense management) or indirectly (like climate change). But, as you see, it’s not all about pesticide use. To cite the IPBES assessment:

Explicitly linking pollinator declines to individual or combinations of direct drivers is limited by data availability or complexity, yet a wealth of individual case studies worldwide suggests that these direct drivers often affect pollinators negatively.

Don’t forget that. This doesn’t mean that we can use as much pesticide as we like as long as we tackle the other problems. It just means that we shouldn’t get out of sight the whole picture by focusing too much on a single factor. Those of you reading this blog already for a while know that I’m not a friend of simplifying. We have to continue working for pollinators and there conservation, even if the European Commission bans neonicotinoids. The bees, and other pollinators, will still be threatened after the ban. Also in good old Europe.

Intense agricultural management doesn’t mean only pesticides. But uniform, “empty” landscapes like this.

Can we rely on technical solutions like robo bees?

I’d like to answer this just with a no and leave it there. This is another simplification that makes me shiver. I already wrote a post why we need pollinators, not robots. Though the attempts to do so don’t stop.

Some days ago, I even read something about robot flowers. Oh my… This may be nice as a reminder of how our world could look like without bees. But no… NO!!! It’s not a way to save bees. Flowers, insects, living beings in general can’t be replaced by robots. At least the article isn’t as euphoric as I first thought. But I wonder if people inform themselves before inventing these “solutions”. Sorry for the rant.

Complex problems need complex approaches. Then the solution can be quite simple. But we have to think it through thoroughly, based on knowledge, understanding the system. There are several publications out on this topic, most of them include some kind of habitat restoration. This is, in my opinion, the largest problem: in many regions there is so little habitat left. It’s not only agriculture, also our cities take a lot of room, seal the soil and create diversity deserts.

What can we do to help pollinators instead?

The IPBES assessment suggest several “strategic responses” to pollinator decline. Between them, is “restoration of habitat” as well as sustainable agriculture. The proposed measures reflect the complexity of the topic: it’s not only “ban pesticides!” but also

  • uncultivated patches for pollinators,
  • reward farmers for pollinator friendly measures,
  • support diversified farming systems,
  • inform farmers about pollination requirements.

There are many more, but this last one is especially interesting. In my opinion, the basis for many problems in this world is lack of knowledge. Lack of education. It’s trivial, but not less true: we can only protect what we know. The suggestion “translate pollinator research into agricultural practices” is crucial. And it’s based on education, on knowledge transfer between different social groups.

All these different measures and solutions can be approached at the same time. Always adapted to the diverse realities in different countries. This may be a bigger task than just banning a group of pesticides, but it’s the way to go if we really want to solve the issue.

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