Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Study reveals hard-working bees, pollinators need our help

The importance of bees and other hard-working pollinators, relied upon for more than a third of the world's crop production and 85 per cent of wild flowering plants. Photo / Hawkes Bay Today
The importance of bees and other hard-working pollinators, relied upon for more than a third of the world's crop production and 85 per cent of wild flowering plants. Photo / Hawkes Bay Today

Corporate control of agriculture, new viruses and climate change have been singled out among a long list of big threats to pollinators in a new horizon-scanning study co-authored by a Kiwi scientist.

The importance of bees and other hard-working pollinators, relied upon for more than a third of the world's crop production and 85 per cent of wild flowering plants, has been highlighted by countless studies and was the take-away message of the 2007 animated film Bee Movie.

But until this week, international researchers had not taken a comprehensive, global look at the risks they'll face in future decades.

In response to a range of threats, including the expansion of corporate agriculture, fresh classes of insecticides and emerging viruses, authors of a study just published in the journal PeerJ have called for new global policies of "proactive prevention" rather than trying to mitigate risks after they've emerged.

"We are increasingly adopting practices that damage these species," said the study's lead author, Professor Mark Brown from Royal Holloway University of London.

"Then, we rather absurdly look to mitigate their loss, rather than prevent it in the first place."

Brown called this an expensive and "back-to-front solution" for a problem that had consequences for our well-being.

"Most research focuses on the battles already being fought, not on the war to come."

The authors pointed to six issues that presented threats and opportunities to pollinators: corporate control of agriculture at the global scale; sulfoximine, a novel systemic class of insecticides; new viruses; increased diversity of managed pollinator species; the effects of extreme weather under climate change; and reductions in chemical use in non-agricultural settings.

The research highlighted consolidation of the agri-food industries as a major potential threat to pollinators, with a small numbers of companies now having unprecedented control of land.

The rise in trans-national land deals for crop production, such as the use of large areas of Brazil for soybean export to China, now occupied more than 40 million hectares.

But Brown didn't see the picture as being all doom and gloom.

"For example, such global domination provides an opportunity to influence land-management to make it favourable for pollinators at huge scales, but this would require the agri-food industry to work closely with NGOs and researchers."

Co-author, Dr Lynn Dicks of Cambridge University, said identifying
environmental issues before they became large scale allowed society to plan responses and tackle environmental risks.

"It is a routine part of strategic planning in financial management, and it should also be routine in environmental planning and policy-making," she said.

"Many of the pollinator issues we identified on the horizon can be responded to right now, for example by working with corporations already controlling large areas of agricultural land to develop pollinator management strategies, or by planning research on the sub-lethal effects of sulfoxaflor before it is widely used."

However, the study also found more explicitly positive opportunities for pollinators.

Current and future reduction of chemical use in non-agricultural land, gardens and parks, for instance, could be fruitful for pollinating populations.

"We must continue to encourage these practices across industry, government, and the public, so that we give our important pollinating species the support they need to do their vital work," Brown said.

Study has big relevance to New Zealand

Study co-author Dr David Pattemore, a pollinator expert at Plant and Food Research, saw the findings as hugely important given the critical role pollinators played in food production and healthy ecosystems.

It was also highly relevant to New Zealand, as the country faced unique and complicated challenges.

"Our main crop pollinator, the European honeybee, is responsible for the production of one of our fasting-growing exports: manuka honey," Pattemore said.

"A real challenge for New Zealand is to balance the sustainable growth of the manuka honey industry, which is now so important economically, with the need to provide sufficient pollination for our crops while protecting native pollinators and ecosystems."

One big issue on the horizon was new pesticides and fungicides that could have a negative impact. Pattemore said it was vital to ensure effects on pollinators were integral to the assessment of their applicability and use.

"At the same time, we are starting to see greater public awareness of the impact of pesticides on pollinators, so that we anticipate home gardeners and city councils will start to reduce their use of products harmful to pollinators," he said.

"This could be a real benefit for pollinator diversity in urban areas."

He noted that increased corporatisation of agriculture could see increased monoculture plantings that tended to be hard on wild pollinators.

"But at the same time, these large entities in control of large areas of land could rapidly implement pollinator-friendly practices if the economic argument can be made for them.

"All across the world, we are starting to see a greater diversity of managed pollinator species becoming available: this raises awareness of the importance of diversity and improves pollination, but potentially could lead to issues around the build-up and transmission of pollinator diseases."

Pattemore said the paper, the first of its kind for pollinators, was the first step, and such horizon-scanning approaches were becoming more important as the big issues presented themselves.

"New Zealand's participation in these studies ensures that we learn from the top experts around the world as well as adding an important perspective to the global conversation from our own unique situation."

- NZ Herald

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