The Plight of the Pollinators

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Pollinators like bumblebees are declining in Europe. What are the causes, the consequences and the possible solutions?

Researchers know that the causes are multiple: a combination of habitat loss, pathogens, alien species, agrichemical pollution and even climate change.

And the consequences are dramatic. Bees and other pollinators are sentinels of whole ecosystems, which depend on them to thrive.

Declining pollinators have negative effects in wild plant populations, crop production and, eventually, human nutrition.

Simon Potts who is a pollination biologist at Reading University explained the effect with the help of two strawberries: “Take a strawberry that is a good colour, good size, and is symmetrical. That is a strawberry that’s been very well pollinated. A poorly pollinated strawberry is a bit smaller, it is misshapen, it is not very attractive; it probably has less sugar in it.

‘So pollinators play a really important part in agriculture, and if we have fewer of them in Europe, we are going to have problems with growing good quality food.”

Researchers at a European research project are working to assess the problem and find solutions.

And one possible option, they think, could be to cover land margins next to agricultural crops with a mix of flowers to attract pollinators and help them colonise new spaces, as Victoria Wickens, an agricultural ecologist at Reading University, explained.

“We thought if we can put flower rich species into a land margin here, we can get the maximum out of the land. We can attract pollinators by using a very specific mix of flowers. So this will attract different pollinator species; bumblebees, hoverflies, all the things that can pollinate crops. So they’ll move in, they will increase their number and eventually then they will move into the crops.”

And the research campaigns in the field and laboratory seem to be proving that the measure can be effective, say scientists.

“Early results are showing that the flower strips are improving pollinators by 500%. That is just in terms of abundance. But in terms of diversity, we are also actually finding rare species coming out into agriculture so it is really exciting. We are drawing pollinators out of protected habitats into agriculture,” said Jennifer Wickens an agricultural ecologist at Reading University.

To give all the pollinators a second chance, researchers are engaged in even more original initiatives and at some unexpected places.

Duncan Coston who is a biologist at Reading University, filled a basket at a local supermarket to show some of the products which depend on pollinators: “Oranges, cider, pears, soap, some coffee, some almonds. So without coffee, or chocolate, or things like pains au chocolat, your morning breakfast is starting to look pretty dull.”

Experts in pollination organise regular awareness campaigns in schools or supermarkets near Reading, in the United Kingdom.

And they are not short of good examples to make people understand the key role played by pollinators in nature and their impact in our daily lives.

“It is a species of midge fly that pollinates the cocoa plant. So without that species of midge fly, there is not chocolate. There are certain bee species and butterfly and moth species that pollinate coffee. So without them, we would not have coffee. Cotton requires insects to be pollinated. So without the pollinators, the amount and yield of all these products would drop dramatically, and the cost of these things would eventually skyrocket,” stressed Duncan Coston.

Reversing pollinators’ decline is still possible, researchers say. But without new solutions, they conclude, time could be running out.

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