Bugs Beat Bees for Sexing Up Plants

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Wild insects may be essential to farmers’ success. A worldwide study of wild pollinators’ role in agriculture found that a diverse community of wild insects correlated to improved crop productivity. Large numbers of beneficial wild bugs increased the amount of fruit set, or the degree to which crops’ flowers were successfully pollinated to produce grain or fruit.

Unfortunately, loss of habitat, indiscriminate pesticide use and other causes have obliterated insect biodiversity on many farms. To make up for the loss of wild pollinators, farmers often pay to have hives of honeybees trucked to their fields. Some farmers also establish permanent hives on their land. The USDA estimated that bee pollination accounts for more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year.

However, honeybees increased the pollination success on only 14 percent of the 600 farms studied by the recent research published in Science.

“Our study shows that losses of wild insects from agricultural landscapes impact not only our natural heritage but also our agricultural harvests,” said lead author Lucas A. Garibaldi of the Universidad Nacional de Río Negro, Argentina in a press release. “Long term, productive agricultural systems should include habitat for both honey bees and diverse wild insects. Our study prompts for the implementation of more sustainable agricultural practices.”

ANALYSIS: Bold Blooms Bring in the Bees

One of big reason wild pollinators were so successful is that the wild bugs were busier than the bees, according to the study. Wild insects tended to visit the flowers twice as frequently as the bees. The study authors suggested that the bees were serving to supplement the wild pollinators, but were incapable of replacing them.

“Ecosystem services can depend on biodiversity provided by wild organisms,” said Alexandra-Maria Klein of Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany in a press release. “Intensified agriculture separates crop production and biodiversity. Our study shows that this separation can have negative consequences for pollination services not buffered by honeybee management.”

ANALYSIS: Controversy Swarms Bee and Pesticide Study

Honeybee pollination services can be pricey for farmers, and I wonder how this research will affect the demand for trucked-in honeybees. Colony collapse disorder has decimated honeybee populations and caused a dramatic increase in the cost of pollination services since the 90′s, according to the USDA.

Perhaps designating areas of a farm as refuges for wild pollinators and encouraging a diverse community of insects could reduce farmers’ costs, which means cheaper and more abundant food for all.

IMAGE: Honey bee, Apis mellifera, pollinating Avocado, Persea americana, flower (Andrew Mandemaker, Wikimedia Commons)

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