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Insights into Editorial: Protect the little helpers
If you look at the plate of food on your dinner table, bees have played their part either pollinating the many vegetables and fruits we eat directly, or pollinating the food for the animals that we then consume.
And that’s not all bees do for us – honey and wax are two other important products that come courtesy of bees.
But honey bees are disappearing globally at an alarming rate due to pesticides, parasites, disease and habitat loss. If these little insects that help provide so much of the food we eat were to vanish, what would we do without them?
Pollination and food production:
Pollination is the vital process in flowering plant reproduction involving the transfer of pollen grains from the anther (or male part) to the stigma (or female part) of the same, or another plant of the same species. The fertilised egg cells grow into seeds which are then spread in the many fruits and vegetables that we all love to eat.
Pollination is not just important for the food we eat directly, it’s vital for the foraging crops, such as field beans and clover, used to feed the livestock we depend on for meat.
Just as importantly, it helps to feed many other animals in the food chain and maintains the genetic diversity of the flowering plants.
Importance of Pollinators:
Most of our staple food crops such as wheat, rice, sorghum, barley and maize do not require animals for their pollination.
However, wild pollinators play a very important role in the production of other crops such as some pulses, sunflower seeds, cardamom, coffee, cashew nuts, oranges, mangoes and apples.
In India, the important pollinators of food crops are various species of honeybee, Apis, such as A. Dorsata, A. Cerana, A. Florae, A. Andreniformes and A. Laboriosa. The European honeybee, A. Mellifera, also pollinates many crops and fruits such as apples.
An army of more than 20,000 species of pollinators including birds, bats and insects service these crops.
For most of our food crops, though, the most important pollinators are the thousands of species of bees. The annual economic value of the crops pollinated by animals worldwide is estimated to be between $260 billion and $620 billion (in 2018).
Pollinators are under grave threat:
The decline of moths, bees, butterflies, hoverflies and other pollinators is undeniably linked to human activity:
- Large tracts of natural habitats have been cleared for monoculture cultivation
- while the use of pesticides and fertilisers is pushing out nature’s little helpers.
- In a series of studies at the University of Calcutta, researchers have showed that native Indian bees, when exposed to multiple pesticides, suffer from memory and olfactory (incapable of smell) impairment, lower response rates, and oxidative stress which damages cells.
- Parthiba Basu and his team estimated that between 1964 and 2008, there was a 40-60% growth in relative yields of pollinator-dependent crops, while pollinator-independent crops such as cereals and potatoes saw a corresponding 140% rise in yields.
- In Kashmir, researchers have pinned lowering yields of apple trees on the declining frequency of bee visits. In north India, lowering yields of mustard cultivation may be caused by disappearing pollinators.
By 2014-15, the U.S. had established a Pollinator Health Task Force and a national strategy that focussed on increasing the monarch butterfly population and planting native species and flowers in more than 28,000 sq km to attract pollinators.
Around the same time, the U.K. developed 23 key policy actions under its National Pollinator Strategy. Meanwhile, after the IPBES report, almost 20 countries have joined the Coalition of the Willing on Pollinators.
Way Forward: Pollinators are the Friends of the Nature:
The EU Pollinators’ Initiative adopted recently can provide pointers to India, particularly a policy of direct payment support to farmers to provide buffer strips for pollinators for nectar- and pollen-rich plants.
India has millions of hectares of reserve forests, some of which have been converted to pulpwood plantations. Much of this can be restored to become thriving homes for pollinators. The same can be done in gram panchayat levels. Fallow areas and government land can be used to plant flowering species for pollinators.
To restore the integrity of pollinators:
Improvements in the science of pollination, better land management, strong regulations underlying pesticide use, and restoration and protection of habitats for wild pollinators. Above all, there is an urgent need for monitoring wild pollinators, and for strengthening the governance of natural assets.
Pollinators in urban areas can service and enhance food production in peri-urban areas. Wild biodiversity, including pollinators, must become a significant component of future ‘smart cities’.
Policies and governance for managing landscapes natural, agricultural, urban are equally important.
There are many factors involved in the complex environmental challenges threatening human security today. Only well-integrated approaches can successfully address them.
Promoting organic farming and lowering pesticide usage, landscape management is key.