Pollinators, primarily bees, are essential to agriculture, providing a significant yield benefit in over 60% of crop yield. Pollination is the highest agricultural contributor to yields worldwide, contributing far beyond any other agricultural management practice. Pollinators affect 35 percent of global agricultural land, supporting the production of 87 of the leading food crops worldwide. Plus, pollination-dependent crops are five times more valuable than those that do not need pollination.
The price tag of global crops directly relying on pollinators is estimated to be between US$235 and US$577 billion a year and their quantity is on the rise. The volume of agricultural production dependent on pollinators has increased by 300 percent in the last 50years. These figures reflect the importance that pollinators have in sustaining livelihoods across the planet.
Several of the crops produced with pollination, cocoa and coffee, to name two examples, provide income for farmers, in particular smallholder farmers and family farms, especially in developing countries. For fruit and nut crops, pollination can be a grower’s only real chance to increase yield. The extent of pollination dictates the maximum number of fruits. Post-pollination inputs, whether growth regulators, pesticides, water, or fertilizer, are actually designed to prevent losses and preserve quality rather than increase yield.
Bees and colony collapse disorder continue to draw attention. There is a growing belief that a number of factors, including parasites, diseases, nutrition, beekeeping practices, weather patterns and genetics may be combining to challenge the survival of bees. Parasites and viruses can spread easily in today’s highly connected world. Both Varroa destructor (a parasitic mite and vector of viruses) and Nosema spp. (a parasitic fungus) weaken immunity and bee health. As a result, many viruses – previously unknown to have caused symptoms of ill-health in bees – have become fatal.
The limited genetic diversity of honeybees – bred from a limited number of lines to become less aggressive and more productive – may also have affected immunity. For example, it is estimated that the entire honeybee population of the USA can be traced back to 500 queens. Modern farming has also reduced the variety of pollen within the agricultural landscape, impacting bee diet and also immunity.
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) carries out various activities to encourage pollinator-friendly practices in agricultural management. It provides technical assistance to countries on issues ranging from queen breeding to artificial insemination to sustainable solutions for honey production and export marketing.
To protect bees and pollinators from the threats to their abundance, diversity and health, efforts should be made to build a greater diversity of pollinator habitats in agricultural and urban settings. Policies that favour pollinators and promote biological pest control and limit the use of pesticides should be implemented. Farmers can help maintain pollinator abundance, diversity and health by using innovative practices that integrate local and scientific knowledge and experience and by diversifying farms to make food resources and shelter continuously available to pollinators.