No one can pinpoint why bees and other pollinators are going extinct, but figuring it out will prove vital to our future.
Last Monday, members of nearly 100 national governments met in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur for a weeklong conference to discuss the threats facing animal pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and birds. According to delegates of the conference, these pollinators are increasingly threatened with extinction, a bleak reality that could have devastating consequences for human food supply in the near future.
The meeting was held at the behest of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an independent working group comprised of 124 UN member nations. It marks the first time world leaders have convened on this scale to discuss the threat to the bees, birds, bats, beetles, butterflies, and other animals which transport the pollen necessary for the reproduction of over 75 percent of the world's leading food crops and 90 percent of wild flowering plant species.
"Without pollinators, many of us would not be able to enjoy chocolate, coffee and vanilla ice cream, or healthy foods like blueberries and brazil nuts," Lynn Dicks, a research fellow at Cambridge University's Department of Zoology and one of the 77 scientists to contribute to the report, said in press release. "The value of pollinators goes way beyond this. People's livelihoods and culture are intimately linked with pollinators around the world. All the major world religions have sacred passages that mention bees."
"We are in a period of decline and there are going to be increasing consequences."
The meeting precedes the release of a "mega-report" two years in the making which details the extent of the threat of pollinator extinction. It is the first assessment issued by the IPBES (which was formed in 2012) and although it will contain no new research, the report will offer an exhaustive overview of relevant scientific studies in tandem with indigenous and local knowledge.
The report, to be released to the public on February 29, was adopted by the IPBES delegates on Friday.
As detailed in the forthcoming report, human dependence on these pollinators, particularly bees, has only increased in recent decades. The volume of pollinator dependent crops (which range from cocoa to avocados) has increased by 300 percent in the last 50 years, and such crops account for approximately 35 percent of all agricultural land. While not all of these crops are solely reliant on animal pollination (some can take advantage of wind-pollination, for instance), the scientists involved with the report estimate that between 5 and 8 percent of all crop production is directly attributed to animal pollination.
Yet despite humanity's increasing reliance on animal pollinators for our food supply, the animal pollinators themselves are seeing significant declines in both wild and managed populations. Of particular concern among the pollinators are bees, which the scientists described as "dominant" pollinators because they visit about 90 percent of the leading global crop types.
Understanding the extent of the problem has proven difficult due to lack of data about pollinator populations. North America and Europe keep the best data, and the latter has found that at least 37 percent of bee species and 31 percent of butterfly species are seeing declining populations. There are about 20,000 recognized species of pollinators, and according to the scientists 2 in 5 species of invertebrate pollinators (such as bees and butterflies) and 1 in 6 vertebrate pollinators (such as bats and hummingbirds) are on the path to extinction globally.
Due to the lack of sufficient data from Asia, Africa and Latin America, the number of threatened species may be much higher. Yet even without this data, it is clear that animal pollinators are increasingly threatened by human activity, which may have far reaching consequences for human food supply.
"We are in a period of decline and there are going to be increasing consequences," Simon Potts, report lead author and director of the Centre for Agri-Environmental Research at the University of Reading, told the Associated Press.
One of the major problems in mitigating the threat of extinction faced by many animal pollinators is pinpointing the cause. This trend toward mass extinction cannot be reduced to a single cause, although the report singles out a number of leading culprits, such as: dedicating large swathes of farmland to a single crop (thereby destroying the diversity that allows pollinators to thrive); the use of certain pesticides (particularly neonicotinoid, which attacks bees' nervous system); habitat loss due to human development; and global warming.
Fortunately however, many of these problems can be rectified through local action, particularly when it comes to changing the way farmland is used. In addition to the dedication of large tracts of agricultural land to just one crop, the destruction of grassland (which is particularly conducive to thriving pollinator populations) has proceeded at an unprecedented rate—take Europe for instance, which has seen the destruction of 97 percent of its grasslands since World War II. The key is to develop local solutions to such problems, a good example being Britain, which now pays farmers to plant wildflower hedges for bees on their land.
Although the plight faced by animal pollinators—and by extension the humans which depend on their activities—is a dire one, the IPBES report is an important step in beginning to address the problem. This sentiment was neatly summed up by Dennis van Engelsdorp, a University of Maryland bee expert, who highlighted the urgency of taking action to the Associated Press.
"Everything falls apart if you take pollinators out of the game," van Engelsdorp said. "If we want to say we can feed the world in 2050, pollinators are going to be part of that."