A growing number of pollinator species worldwide are being driven toward extinction – primarily due to habitat loss, the use of toxic pesticides, and the climate crisis. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the UN, 75 percent of the world’s food crops depend at least in part on pollination.
Between $235 billion and $577 billion worth of annual global food production relies on direct contributions by pollinators. Recent assessments have found that an estimated 16 percent of vertebrate pollinators are threatened with global extinction – increasing to 30 percent for island species – with a trend towards more extinctions.
In a Rutgers University-led study published Wednesday in The Royal Society journal, researchers found that a lack of wild bees in some agricultural areas of the U.S. is limiting the supply of some food crops. They found this could have “serious ramifications” for global food security.
The study, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, comes as evidence of steep drops in insect populations worldwide prompts fears of dire consequences for crop pollination and natural food chains.
The research focused on seven major fruit, vegetable and nut crops that are dependent on pollination by wild bees and managed honeybees, which are often transported around farms as hired crop pollinators.
Data was collected on insect pollination and crop production for highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), apple (Malus pumila), sweet cherry (Prunus avium), tart cherry (Prunus cerasus), almond (Prunus dulcis), watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) and pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) at 131 farms across the U.S and part of Canada
While honeybees have traditionally been seen as the most economically valuable pollinators in the US, the study found wild bees play a much greater role than has been previously acknowledged, “even in agriculturally intensive regions.”
The researchers found that five out of seven crops showed evidence of “pollinator limitation” and that yields could be boosted with full pollination, according to EcoWatch. “Our findings show that pollinator declines could translate directly into decreased yields or production for most of the crops studied, and that wild species contribute substantially to pollination of most study crops in major crop-producing regions,” the authors said.
Almonds are one of the two crops not shown to be suffering from a lack of bees in the study. Interestingly, almonds are mostly grown in California, where most of the beehives in the US are trucked to each year for a massive almond pollination event.
“The crops that got more bees got significantly more crop production,” said Rachael Winfree, an ecologist and pollination expert at Rutgers University who was a senior author of the paper.
“Honeybee colonies are weaker than they used to be and wild bees are declining, probably by a lot,” said Winfree. “The agriculture is getting more intensive and there are fewer bees, so at some point the pollination will become limited. Even if honeybees were healthy, it’s risky to rely so much on a single bee species. It’s predictable that parasites will target the one species we have in these monocultural crop fields.”