"Biological diversity is the key to the maintenance of the world as we know it"
- Edward O. Wilson
Bee populations have been declining around the world as habitat fragmentation, pesticides, disease, pathogens, pollution and climate change all interact to serve a slow, 'death by a thousand cuts' to global pollinator diversity.
Fifty to one hundred and fifty species become extinct each day, so what? What does this mean for you and me as we pack ourselves off to work and university each day, struggling to make our loan and rent payments and striving to give ourselves and our kids the best opportunities in life? Ask yourself, 'am I willing to pay extra for my morning coffee and evening chocolate or risk not being able to have either because we failed to act on managing the world's diversity?' As species disappear off the face of our planet, silently, unnoticed, never to croak, bellow or buzz again ........life goes on..........or does it?
Around the Southern Hemisphere fruit and nut farmers are gearing up for another season of production. Although this season for many farmers and beekeepers alike, holds a sense of uncertainty, a foreboding feeling of what is to come. They know something that many people do not. For the past 20 years beekeepers in Europe and America have been losing the bees from their hives and it is only getting worse. Up to 59% of honey bees in America and 25% of honey bees in Europe have died. The pollinator crisis is a global phenomenon, most losses have occurred in the northern hemisphere but now it is on Australia's door step. New Zealand has contracted the symptoms of colony loss and the outlook for Australia could not be worse. Reliance on pollinators for agricultural food production and the importance of pollinators to the persistence of wild plant populations has the potential to cause serious negative impact on various economies, health and well- being and more so the biodiversity that surrounds us (if these losses continue). The diversity of life is an essential component of ecological systems providing indispensable goods and services to man and the natural world.
Pollinators such as honey bees provide the world with much more than honey. They provide a vital ecosystem service, fertilising crops and wild plant species. Published papers in Ecology and Botanical Review say that around 80% of wild plant species rely on insect pollination for successful fruit and seed development (varying between site and season). The development of fruit and seed is vital to the survival and dispersal of many species (and therefore general diversity). The loss of plant species due to lack of pollinators has the potential to impact greatly on other species in the food chain all the way down to microorganisms and hence negatively impact on overall biodiversity.
Humans depend on insect pollination for food. One-third of our diet comes from plants that require insect pollination. Most fruit, seed, nuts and some vegetables utilised by humans are dependant on pollination. For example almonds, macadamia, watermelon, pears, apples, and yes Arabica coffee and coco just to name a few all rely on pollination. Do you still take for granted your morning coffee and evening chocolate? (A full list of crop plants dependant on pollination can be found at texasbees.com).
In the U.S. wild and commercial bees pollinate 90 different crop species totalling $30 billion annually. In Australia, honey products make up a value of $50 million while agriculture pollination produces $1.2 billion. French (National Institute for Agricultural Research and National Centre for Scientific Research) and German (Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research) scientists announced in a paper published in Ecological Economics that the global economic value of pollinators is around $215 billion, 9.5% of the total value of world food production! Scientists predict that if pollinators continue to decline a loss of $70 billion each for fruit and vegetable could occur. Pollinators have a reasonable contribution to various economies including the income they bring to local individual farmers and beekeepers. If bees decline, both local and regional economies will take a hit. Eventually this will translate into a reduced livelihood for these people and in turn you the consumer.
Even though the importance of pollinators and the beginnings of a global biodiversity crisis are clearly recognised, great uncertainties still exist about the future viability of many species and what management steps are appropriate, especially for honey bees, a key commercial pollinator. Firstly we must understand what is causing these declines. A special issue in the Journal of Apicultural Research discuses past and present literature regarding the possible causes of honey bee colony loss and states that no single driver has emerged but rather that interaction between multiple drivers plays a key role. This is a major issue as scientists believed that the sub-lethal effects of one or two drivers could make another driver lethal. Drivers identified by studies outlined in this issue include viruses such as Nosema ceranae, Varroa destructor, pesticides, drought, decreased genetic diversity, loss of habitat and climate change, all of which are thought to weaken the immune system of bees therefore making them more vulnerable to the multiple effects (especially viruses).
The common link between these drivers is a human factor. Our carelessness has lead to the spread of disease, fragmentation of habitats, overuse of pesticides and even the alteration of climate. The future is man made, what happens next is down to us, small changes in the way you and I live can be the difference between a sustainable future and a path that could possibly see the demise of life as we know it.
However, not all scholars agree, a paper (Buzziness as usual? Questioning the global pollination crisis) from the Imperial College London argues that the global pollinator and crop production crisis is both inappropriate and pre-mature. A key theme presented by this paper is that the relationship between pollinator diversity and crop and wild plant diversity is not exclusive. That there are many other factors supporting this diversity. There has been strong evidence for declines in pollinator species. However there are also cases where pollinators have shown resistance to environmental change. Often the portrayal of declining honey bees in the media does not reflect the complexity of responses or the varied dependency of crops on pollination. A valid argument put forward by this paper is that justifying conservation based on pollinators as a service is open to criticism if crop productivity does not decline with pollinator losses. The paper argues that due to gaps in our knowledge about changing abundances of pollinators there is not enough evidence and its is pre-mature to call this a pollination crisis.
The large uncertainties surrounding pollinators should by no means be a reason to halt conservation practices. The high level of uncertainty surrounding global biodiversity and pollinators should be a significant enough reason to act. Even those sceptical of the crisis say that if true, immediate conservation action and management remediation is required.
The situation is like the climate debate, some say we need to act now while others argue that the changes are natural and that it is too early to predict the impacts or outcomes. This is the key issue, do we want to sit around and wait for the consequences or do we act and reverse what has begun? If we take the low estimate that the Earth has 10 million species. This means, based on the number of species lost each day that we are losing 0.2-0.6 percent of species on this planet each year. This is about 10,000 times greater than what scientists call the natural 'background' extinction rate.
"If enough species are extinguished, will ecosystems collapse and will the extinction of most other species follow soon afterwards? The only answer anyone can give is: Possibly. By the time we find out, however, it might be too late. One planet, one experiment."
- Edward O. Wilson
If we let one (possibly more) species of pollinators become extinct who knows what will happen next? Do we really want to find out? I say act now, even if only for the sake of humanity. Protect the world's biodiversity or we may lose more than the honey bee, most likely our way of life.
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BY THOMAS GARNHAM | SEPTEMBER- 2010