By Dr. Becker
Pollinators are one of the superheroes of the animal world, nearly single-handedly ensuring that roughly 1,000 plants humans depend on for food, beverages, spices, and more are able to reproduce.1
This occurs via pollination, which is an ingenious process, really. One way plants produce offspring (more plants) is by producing seeds, which carry the genetic information necessary to grow a new plant.
But, seeds can only be produced when pollen is transferred between flowers (specifically, from the male anther of one flower to the female stigma of another).
The flowers can't do this themselves, so nature has provided a way — pollinators (and to a lesser extent wind and water — some plants are also self-pollinating).2
Pollinators include birds, butterflies, bees, bats, moths and other insects and animals (unbeknownst to many, even certain possums (honey possums), lizards, slugs and gnats can act as pollinators).
When a pollinator eats pollen or sips nectar from a flower, the pollen grains become attached to its body. Then, when the animal travels to another flower, the grains may fall onto the flower's stigma, resulting in successful pollination.
Pollinators Are Declining at Alarming Rates
In the U.S., pollination by insects including honeybees and native bees results in $40 billion worth of products annually.3 Honeybees alone help to pollinate 87 of the top 115 food crops — but their numbers are on the decline.
Since 2006, U.S. beekeepers have lost nearly 30 percent of their honeybee colonies annually due to a disease dubbed colony collapse disorder (CCD).
The condition causes bees to become disoriented, leaving their hives, and never returning. Hives across the country have been decimated, and while there's still no definitive cause, pesticides, viruses, mites, fungi, and antibiotics may play a role.
In Europe, 15 percent of hives have died off annually.4 The widespread use of neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides, appears to be particularly damaging to bees, and in 2014 a Harvard study concluded, "Neonicotinoids are highly likely to be responsible for triggering CCD" in previously healthy honeybee hives.5
In addition to pesticide use, intensive agriculture, including the use of monocrops, has removed the natural plant diversity that bees and other pollinators thrive on. Butterflies, including Taylor's checkerspot butterflies and monarchs, are also on the decline.
This is concerning since many native flowers can only be pollinated by butterflies, which have a long proboscis that can reach into a deep flower blossom.6 Also, bees tend to stay contained to a local area (unless beekeepers physically move them), but butterflies travel over large areas.
Even close to 10 percent of hummingbird species, a common non-insect pollinator, are currently endangered.7
If Pollinators Continue to Decline, Malnutrition and Disease Are Likely to Increase
Researchers from Harvard University recently analyzed supplies of 224 types of food in 156 countries and quantified the amount of nutrients the foods contain.
They also determined to what extent the food is dependent on pollinators, and what may happen if those pollinators were no longer around to provide pollination.
"We quantified the nutritional and health outcomes associated with decreased intake of pollinator-dependent foods for populations around the world," the researchers wrote in The Lancet.8 The results were striking. If pollinators were to disappear completely:
- 71 million people in low-income countries could become newly deficient in vitamin A
- 2.2 billion already consuming below the average requirement would have further declines in vitamin A supplies
- 173 million people in low-income countries could become newly deficient in folate
- 1.2 billion already consuming below the average requirement would have further declines in folate
Further, if pollinators were to go extinct, global fruit supplies could decrease by nearly 23 percent, vegetables by more than 16 percent and nuts and seeds by 22 percent. Examples of foods and beverages produced with the help of pollinators include:9
Apples Blueberries Chocolate Coffee Melons Peaches Potatoes Pumpkins Vanilla Almonds Tequila
The declines would disproportionately affect poorer populations, who would be unable to afford the food price increases that might also occur. Ultimately, the declines in food would lead to significant increases in global malnutrition and disease. The researchers concluded:10
"In sum, these dietary changes could increase global deaths yearly from non-communicable and malnutrition-related diseases by 1.42 million … and disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) by 27 million … an increase of 2.7% for deaths and 1.1% for DALYs.
A 50% loss of pollination services would be associated with 700,000 additional annual deaths and 13.2 million DALYs."
How You Can Help Save Pollinators
There's no way to put a price on the value of pollinators; their contributions to the world are truly priceless. Aside from food production, pollination is necessary for the survival of many other plant species as well, like wildflowers. Such flowering plants help provide clean air, help purify water and prevent erosion, since their roots help hold soil in place. Even their foliage acts as a buffer for rain falling on the earth, notes the USDA Forest Service.11 They continued:12
"Without pollinators, the human race and all of earth's terrestrial ecosystems would not survive. Of the 1,400 crop plants grown around the world, i.e., those that produce all of our food and plant-based industrial products, almost 80% require pollination by animals.
Visits from bees and other pollinators also result in larger, more flavorful fruits and higher crop yields … Globally, pollination services are likely worth more than 3 trillion dollars."
If you want to get involved in saving these precious species, there's a lot you can do, including buying organic and locally grown food. In addition, the Pollinator Partnership recommends:13
- Growing native plants, especially those that provide nectar and larval food for pollinators
- Installing houses for bats and native bees
- Supplying salt or mineral licks for butterflies and water for all wildlife
- Reducing pesticide use
- Substituting flower beds for lawns