Global pollinator declines

11 03 2010

Mention anything about ecosystem services – those ecological functions arising from the interactions between species that provide some benefit (source of food/clean water, health, etc.) to humanity1 – and one of the most cited examples is pollination.

It’s really a no-brainer, hence its popularity as an example. Pollinators (mainly insects, but birds, bats and other assorted species too) don’t exist to pollinate plants; rather, their principal source of food acquisition happens to spread around the gametes of the plants they regularly visit. Evolution has favoured the dependence of species in such ways because the mutualism benefits all involved, and in some cases, this dependence has become obligate. So when the habitats that pollinators need to survive are reduced or destroyed, inevitably their population sizes decline and the plants on which they feed lose their main sources of gene-spreading.

So what? Well, about 80 % of all wild plant species require insect pollinators for fruit and seed set, and about 75 % of all human crops require pollination by insects (mostly bees). So it’s pretty frightening to consider that although our global population is at 6.8 billion and growing rapidly, our main food pollinators (bees) are declining globally (see also previous post on bee declines). Indeed, domestic honey bee stocks have declined in the USA by 59 % since 1947 and in Europe by 25 % since 1985. Scared yet?

Another thing people don’t tend to get is that a bee cannot live on rapeseed alone. Most pollinators require intact forests to complete many of their other life history requirements (breeding, shelter, etc.) and merely forage occasionally in crop lands. Cut down all the adjacent bush, and your crops will suffer accordingly.

These, and other titbits to keep you awake at night and worry about what your grandchildren might eat are highlighted in a recent review in Trends in Ecology and Evolution by Potts and colleagues entitled Global pollinator declines: trends, impacts and drivers.

What’s driving all this loss? Several things, but it’s mainly due to ‘land-use change’ (a bullshit word people use generally to mean habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation). However, invasive species competition, pathogens and parasites, and climate change (and the synergies amongst all of these) are all contributing.

It always amazes me when people ask me why biodiversity is important. Despite the overwhelming knowledge we’ve accumulated about how functioning ecosystems make the planet liveable, despite it just being plainly stupid to think that humans are somehow removed from normal biological processes, and even with such in-your-face examples of global pollinator declines and the real, extremely worrying implication for food supplies, many people just don’t seem to get it. Every tree you cut down, every molecule of carbon dioxide you release, every drop of water you waste will punish you and your family directly for generations to come. How much more self-evident can you get?

Humanity seems to have a very poorly developed sense of self-preservation.

CJA Bradshaw

1It’s amazingly arrogant and anthropocentric to think of anything in ecosystems as ‘providing benefits to humanity’. After all, we’re just another species in a complex array of species within ecosystems – we just happen to be one of the numerically dominant ones, excel at ecosystem ‘engineering’ and as far as we know, are the only (semi-) sentient of the biologicals. Although the concept of ecosystem services is, I think, an essential abstraction to place emphasis on the importance of biodiversity conservation to the biodiversity ignorant, it does rub me a little the wrong way. It’s almost ascribing some sort of illogical religious perspective that the Earth was placed in its current form for our eventual benefit. We might be a fairly new species in geological time scales, but don’t think of ecosystems as mere provisions for our well-being.

ResearchBlogging.orgPotts, S., Biesmeijer, J., Kremen, C., Neumann, P., Schweiger, O., & Kunin, W. (2010). Global pollinator declines: trends, impacts and drivers Trends in Ecology & Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2010.01.007

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18 responses

27 11 2015
Bee informed: Quick pollination facts about our most important pollinators |

[…] beekeeping (of mostly Apis mellifera) is generally increasing around the world, there have been some well-publicised and shocking declines around the world (varying from between 25 and 60% depending on region). These declines are due to many interacting […]

4 04 2011
Buzzing to the plate «

[…] pollinator declines: trends, impacts and drivers. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 25, 345-353, doi:10.1016/j.tree.2010.01.007 […]

11 02 2011
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29 01 2011
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[…] 29 01 2011 I liked this. Another quick and entertaining look at why bees are important, why they’re crashing, and what people can do about it (at least, on a very fine scale). And it’s all done in […]

19 03 2010

TeeKay – My apologies – didn’t quite clue in to the fact that you were commenting on another. I see we are of like mind

17 03 2010

I think it’s insane that everytime I argue with people about preserving biodiversity (or a given spieces) I have to do it by arguing about how it will benefit humanity.

Where humans, where sentient, we should be able to do thinks and make sacrefises not only for our own good but also for the good of everything else even when it does not benefits us.

17 03 2010

Hostergaard and CJAB, how much sacrifice would be enough for us to count as sane and sentient? Any practical suggestions?

If you have a good recipe to calculate such thing you may also be of help to Christians, Muslims or patriots that want to know just how much they must sacrifice to be good Christians, Muslims or patriots.

17 03 2010

Too true, too true.

16 03 2010
England’s Lost Wildlife [Pics] |

[…] Global pollinator declines […]

15 03 2010

there’s nothing arrogant about thinking of ecosystems as providing benefits to humanity, after all, they do. good luck if your going to try and convince the ‘biodiversity ignorant’ of the intrinsic value of all god’s species.

15 03 2010

‘god’ had nothing to do with it, mate. No such figment of your imagination.

13 03 2010

You are right that biodiversity as a whole is important. But this is not relevant for human decisions. The relevant thing is the importance of each of those little pieces of biodiversity that we choose to eliminate or not in our everyday lives – each “tree you cut down, every molecule of carbon dioxide you release, every drop of water you waste.”

And you are right that every one of those decisions will punish us for generations to come. But not cutting those trees, not releasing those CO2 molecules and not “wasting” those drops of water would also punish us for generations to come. The question is what punishes, or benefits, us more. The answer to this question is not self-evident.

One doesn’t need to subscribe to the view that the Earth was placed in its current form *for* our eventual benefit in order to benefit from it. We can benefit from it and we do. That’s all.

18 03 2010

“not cutting those trees, not releasing those CO2 molecules and not “wasting” those drops of water would also punish us for generations to come.”

Rubbish. A fallacious use of a cost-benefit analysis. Try replacing “would also punish us for generations to come” with “might slightly inconvenience (some of) us for a short period, but ultimately greatly benefit us for generations to come.”

18 03 2010

Rubbish to your rubbish. “Slightly inconvenience” won’t even begin to describe the food crises and natural disasters that are already occurring because of our modification of the biosphere. You cannot consume indefinitely without reaping the consequences of breaking the machine.

19 03 2010

Corey (can’t reply directly to your reply),

Try reading what I wrote again, or perhaps I was unclear – sorry. What I meant is that any mitigation of these problems is at most a “slight inconvenience”.

i.e. “not cutting those trees, not releasing those CO2 molecules and not “wasting” those drops of water…might slightly inconvenience (some of) us for a short period, but ultimately greatly benefit us for generations to come.”

The answer to biopolitical’s question IS self-evident – the benefits of taking care of these things outweigh the costs of mitigation by many orders of magnitude.

11 03 2010
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This post was mentioned on Twitter by ResearchBlogs: Global pollinator declines

11 03 2010

Nice fiery post CJB. Good to see some ‘byte’.

I can understand your objection to using the word ‘service’ to really describe ‘function’ or ‘activity’. I guess it does imply slavery or servitude, but it is only a word to help communicate the essence of the function to those ‘self-centred’ humans. The bees also provide a ‘service’ to the plants and the birds that eat fruit and grains.

I’m waiting for the response that says, humans are as much a part of nature as a bee and therefore everything humans do is natural. Because humans are natural, ‘converting’ forest for agriculture is just as natural as beavers damming streams (both are ecosystem engineers). Therefore, there’s no need to do anything because what we do is natural. Who cares what happens to the humans? The planet will bounce back and carry on fine without them. It did for millions of years!

I think conservation is necessarily an anthropocentric notion, and as such, looking on the world from an anthropocentric viewpoint, whilst properly accepting that we depend on nature, is often appropriate.

Viewing the activities of animals and plants as ‘services’ which we can lose through our own activities, such as ecosystem destruction, drives home our anthropocentric interest in maintaining those activities.

12 03 2010

Agreed, and as much as it irks me that (most) people can’t seem to readily identify with their dependence on functioning ecosystems, I think the abstractions are important. I once tried to convince myself that I should never be surprised by the manifestations of human stupidity; I am, however, constantly surprised.

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