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Why we need a Pollinator Alliance

  • Author: Gerrit Öhm

Today is World Bee day. That is nice - everybody pays a little more attention to these diligent little beings that contribute to put fruit on our table. But on (social) media, most attention is on the honeybee. I am here to tell you why this is a problem.

Bees are not the universal pollinator

While the honeybee is probably is the first animal we think of when we hear the word “pollinator”, that does not mean that there are no others. The honeybee is just one species of bees, and there are hundreds of different bees out there contributing to pollination. Additionally, bees are not able to pollinate all the fruits and vegetables: Cacao, soursop and mango rely heavily on non-bee pollination, and a wider array of pollinators is of importance in cherry and apple pollination, too. There are several scientific studies supporting the importance of non-bee pollinators. Pollinators are more than just insects, there are mammals, birds and other animals involved in pollination, too!

Why it is stupid to rely on one species on pollinator alone

Even if bees were universal pollinators and could pollinate all our crops, it would not be smart to rely on them for everything. Pollinators face a lot of threats nowadays, suffering from pesticides to habitat destruction. If we focus only on one species as a pollinator, we are in trouble if something happens to that species. Different species react differently to specific threats - if we promote the conservation of many pollinator-species, there is the chance that one species takes over most of the pollination while the other recovers.

Teamwork brings the better result

While I must acknowledge that the honeybee can pollinate a lot of crops, there are also good reasons why it should not do this job on its own. While the relatively big honeybees are good at being clumsy and bumping around inside the plant, collecting and spreading pollen, smaller solitary bees or other small pollinators can move in deeper, contributing to a more complete pollination – resulting in better fruit quality.

We must look at the whole picture

Many insects which have a significant importance for plant pollination, have other major within the ecosystem. Take for example hoverflies: The larvae of many hoverfly species are important as biological pest control, since they feed on aphids. As grown-up flies they play a major role in pollination, but many typical bee-flowers are adapted to the long proboscis of the bees and nectar and pollen are unreachable for the flies. When we want to support hoverflies populations, we must make sure to provide a wider array of flower-types and make sure that the pollinators larval habitat is nearby. Depending on the pollinator species this could be a lot of different places – within a pond, forest, meadow or a field. This deeper thinking into supporting a diverse range of pollinator populations is moves us away from short-sighted simple solutions to long term sustainability and resilience.

Let us give the multi-species pollinator-alliance more space - both in our gardens, parks and in the agricultural landscape! By reducing the simplification of agricultural landscapes and creating a variety of new habitats, pollinators will continue to bring food to our tables.

A bit of further reading:

Rader, Romina, Ignasi Bartomeus, Lucas A. Garibaldi, Michael P. D. Garratt, Brad G. Howlett, Rachael Winfree, Saul A. Cunningham, et al. 2016. “Non-Bee Insects Are Important Contributors to Global Crop Pollination.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113 (1): 146–51. doi:10.1073/pnas.1517092112.

IPBES. 2016. Summary for Policymakers of the Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services on Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production. Edited by S.G. Potts, V. L. Imperatriz-Fonseca, H. T. Ngo, J. C. Biesmeijer, T. D. Breeze, L. V. Dicks, L. A. Garibaldi, et al. Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Bonn. doi:10.1007/s00442-010-1809-8.

Photo of a hoverfly, not a bee

Photo credit: Gerrit Öhm

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