‘Don’t take the bee out of business,’ by Tony Juniper (a former director of Friends of the Earth). This is a very interesting article published In the Resurgence & Ecologist 289 issue (March-April 2015), which explains elegantly and with a great chunk of details and practical examples why wild pollinator decline and the collapse of honeybee colonies threaten our food security and the entire economic Food and Beverage sector.
A Case Study….
Let’s start with the case study brought to the light by Tony Juniper highlights in his article: the company Tatchers. It allow us to answer to the following question: what is the link between ‘insects’ and one of the most successful farm of cider in the United Kingdom?
Well, ‘Thatchers’ is a company which produce about 50 million litres of cider per year, turned over about £60 million in 2013 and exported to several overseas markets, including the United States and Australia. A trusted brand (it was established in 1904), a lot of technology, good supplier relations are essential assets of this company. But there is another even more fundamental asset that many people don’t know: wild insects. In fact, the quality and quantity of apples necessary for the production of cider of thus company depend by the healthy existence of such insects, that, through their pollination services, contribute to the production of the best quality of apples.
Animal pollination is essential for Food Security…
Now let’s give some figures in order to understand the importance of the topic we are talking about: well, about two-thirds of the world’s crop plant species rely on animal pollination; to that extent bees, butterflies, beetles and all the other species that help plants to complete their life cycles ensure that we continue to eat.
According to Jeff Ollerton of the University of Northampton, an expert in pollination and its role in ecosystems, about 75% of our native plants require insects as pollinators; and it’s not just little plants: 60% of our trees are insect-pollinated.
With those figures in mind, there’s no doubt that pollinators (and we are talking of wild pollinators) are essential for our Food Security.
…But wild pollinator populations and honeybee colonies are collapsing…
The loss of pollinators has already emerged as a major challenge for farming, for example in parts of California and China. Since 1980 most British landscapes have seen a reduction in wild bee diversity. According to Ollerton, twenty-three species of bees and flower-visiting wasps have gone extinct in Britain since about 1850. In recent years even domesticated honeybees are having enormous problems because of new parasites coming from other country’s ecosystems and climate change.
What is causing the decline of “wild” pollinator populations?
- Homogenization: with the progressive homogenization of our environment, those species that are specialists and dependent on particular kinds of habitat and/or food plants have fared worst.
- The loss of habitats rich in wild flowers: clearance of woodlands, drainage of wetlands and removal of hedgerows are among the main causes of this loss. Now less habitats rich in wild flowers we’ll have, less will be the number and diversity of pollinator populations. But it is also important to remember that these wild flowers depend on the insects. In line with the reduction in bee diversity, animal-pollinated plants have declined in the UK more than self- or wind-pollinated species. There is a vicious cycle: less wild flowers=less pollinators; less pollinators=less wild flowers.
Will domesticated honeybees fill the gap?
So there’s no doubt: some wild honeybees are facing extinction, the populations of bumblebees, beetles, butterflies and other insects are declining. But some assume that domesticated honeybees will fill the gap.
That’s not really true! For a start, there are far fewer hives. Let’s take again the Britain case. The high point for domesticated bees was in 1949, when in England there were 87,000 beekeepers and 465,000 colonies. However, the post-war popularity of beekeeping was less to do with pollination and more about sugar rationing. When rationing was lifted in 1953, beekeeping for honey became less necessary and by 1970 the number of beekeepers in England and Wales had dropped to about 32,000, running about 158,000 colonies. Beekeeping has since become more popular again, in part because of growing awareness about the loss of wild pollinators. It is estimated that in 2009 there were 40,000 beekeepers and 200,000 colonies.
The recent rise in beekeeping has, however, been accompanied by a rise in bee colony collapse, a process leading to the death of a hive. Some cases are linked to the parasitic Varroa mite that infests hives and increases the bees’ susceptibility to harmful diseases.
Whatever the combination of reasons for wild pollinator decline and the collapse of honeybee colonies, there’s no doubt that domesticated honeybees play a considerably smaller role in providing pollination services than wild species. It used to be assumed that whilst other species could pollinate crops, honeybees were the only ones that mattered. Now we know that, even under the most generous assumptions, they provide only a third of the pollination services that we require.
In fact, no matter how many honeybee hives are established to fill the gap, for certain crops, including strawberries, tomatoes and peppers, it won’t help, because bumblebees are their main pollinators. For others, including field beans, apples and raspberries, honeybees are not as effective pollinators as wild insects.
It’s not only an ecological question; it’s also an economic one….
Let’s take apart for a moment the ecological question and let’s consider the economic consequences of such a decline in wild pollinators.
One figure, based on UK crop production in 2007, suggests that pollinating insects provided services that underpinned crops with a market value of about £430 million. The total contribution to the economy is even bigger, however. That figure doesn’t, for example, include the value of pollinators in sustaining forage crops and small-scale food growing.
Moreover, at a time when official health advice recommends a higher proportion of fruit and vegetables in our diet, keeping pollinator populations healthy will need to be part of the same policy. And when food price fluctuation is expected to become more volatile, it would seem an intelligent choice to maintain our capacity to grow as much of our own as we can.
The solution for agri-companies: a business that keep bees in business…
One company that has understood the commercial relationship between pollinators and profit is Thatchers Cider. This company has built a pollinator-friendly environment. The philosophy that underpins this pollinator-friendly approach is entirely practical. “We’re keen to work Nature into the equation and give it every chance to succeed,” Martin Tatcher, owner of the company, says. “If you use too many chemicals it just doesn’t make sense, either environmentally or financially. You’re just creating a problem for the future. What we’re trying to do is to keep Nature on our side.”
LTEconomy, June 22, 2015
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