No Buzz, No Food, No Joke.

Decline of insect pollination and its economic effect on NZ crop production.

Honey Bee in Apple Tree

Honey Bee in Apple Tree

My earliest memory of wanting to become a scientist goes way back. I was only 8 years old when I imagined myself lying somewhere in the Amazon, observing the behaviour of small mammals in the rainforest. Even though I didn’t get to see the wild world, my wish to become an ‘observer’ stayed with me throughout my life.

While missing out on becoming a zoologist I became a ‘plant-observer’ and landscape planner. Now in my fifties, I want to rekindle my childhood dream and observe plants and animal worlds together. I decided not to venture out but stay close to home, in the Canterbury plains, and observe the insects, representing the largest and most diverse group of oragnisms on earth.

Why do I believe this is more important these days than observing rainforest bats?
In the past four decades, the subject of concerns about the decline of pollinators in our environment has increasingly been worked out in newspapers and science journals. It also has become a more and more colourful subject in conversations around the dinner table.



Crops Pollinated by Honey Bees
Pollination of vegetables and fruits is important for a good harvest. We forget that we additionally need a good pollination service for seed production also. (Onions, carrots, broccoli and dozens more)

The pollinator decline (we are focusing here on insect pollinators, the major group of pollinators), has been a concern worldwide. Because we rarely see a decrease or loss of a crop due to just one reason, i.e. lack of pollinators alone, it is hard to pinpoint the culprits and hence it stays a controversial subject (not only around the dinner table).

Simon Potts, a professor of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in the UK, and many other scientists worldwide argue that the reduction of invertebrate pollinators of crops is possibly a result of our modern practices in agricultural farming. This includes monoculture crops, natural habitats destruction, pesticide misuse and is likely also a result of introduced pests and diseases.

The phrase ‘global pollinator crisis’ is becoming more known to media and laymen due to the potential for fear it triggers in humans: our need for global increase in food production of 60% by 2050 to sustain the world’s consumption (United Nations environmental program, 2012).

This task of increasing the food production alone could make you sweat, not to talk about the mission we have now to combine this with the need to compensate for the decreasing yields of vegetable and fruit crops due to a decline in insect pollinators worldwide.

In a recent study published 2016 in PEER J, a group of scientists, H. Sandhu, B. Waterhouse, S. Boyer & S. Wratten(2016), evaluated the impact of pollinator scarcity on production conducted in an experience in four brassica fields and put a figure to a potential economic consequence for New Zealand.The study included an experiment where the researchers covered the blossoms of several plots of Pack Choi flowers in four different fields. They used fine mesh fabric and excluded the landing of insects for different length of time.

With this exclusion-approach they were able to measure the actual yield of each plot at the end of the experiment. This led Sandhu and his colleagues to estimate the different economic value for 18 crops when exposed to different length of pollination. Their result shows in substantial figures: for New Zealand this could be an economic loss between NZD $295-728 million per year.

Where to from here?

Beehives in a Brassica field.
Tiny manmade pollinators, an option?

It would be interesting to find out if NZ native insects and wild pollinators (unmanaged pollinators including non-natives insects) could help to compensate for the decline of honeybee populations, and work as crop pollinators here in New Zealand. To my knowledge there is little research done in this field yet.

Collaboration between commercial agricultural crop producers, entomologists, beekeepers and ecologists is an imperative to find pollination solutions for our crop production in the near and further future.

Unless humans invent the artificial pollinator in the field, (in laboratories already successfully tested) and let them go ‘wild’ on cropland, we must work on better environmental incentives to keep pollinators happy and close to fields.

ROBO bee, an invention for the future?    

Remote controlled micro-robots or ‘drones’, a way for pollination? If all goes wrong, we might just find the ‘human’ solution for pollination; this could present us with a whole new industry and will see me in the field controlling thousands of tiny drones with a joy stick.

The author Franziska Schmidlin is a postgraduate student in the Master of Agricultural Science taught at Lincoln University. She wrote this article as part of her assessment for ECOL 608 Research Methods in Ecology.

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