Crop pollination depends on wild AND managed pollinators


I just published this letter with Toby Smith and Romina Rader, in response to an opinion piece in Science back in January. The original paper argues that high densities of honey bees can harm wild pollinators (this can happen in some contexts).

It also suggests that a first step toward a conservation strategy for wild pollinators is that crop pollination by managed honey bees “should not be considered an ecosystem service” because those services “are delivered by an agricultural animal and not the local ecosystems”.

This highlights a common misinterpretation of what ecosystem services is all about. Services are delivered by interactions between species (including Homo sapiens) and their environments at multiple scales, not individual organisms or natural ecosystems.

Ecosystem services are produced collaboratively between humans and nature. Two of the most frustrating misconceptions about ‘ecosystem services’ are: (i) that it means we humans should kick back enjoying life while Nature pumps out the benefits to us on a factory line; (ii) only so-called ‘wilderness’ can provide ecosystem services. Neither of these are true.

Farms are ecosystems too. And ‘agricultural animals’ do play a role in delivering ecosystem services. The key is how we manage the farms where those animals live. We have to understand the ecology of our local systems and manage the environment mindfully in a way that minimises harm and maximises benefits, to optimise those services.

I’ve written before about how focusing on dichotomies doesn’t help our understanding of ecosystem services; in this case, ‘wild vs. managed pollinators’ is missing the bigger picture. Crop pollination depends on a variety of invertebrate and vertebrate pollinators. Rather than excluding one group or another, managing the landscape to support multiple pollinators is a more effective solution.

Decades of research shows that managed pollinators are essential for ensuring crop pollination services in a changing world. And these pollinators don’t have to always be honey bees. Wherever you live, there could be other native bee species that can be ‘managed’ to ensure pollination, by providing nests or habitats, while minimising harm to the environment…whether they be honey bees, stingless bees, bumble bees, or solitary bees.

A second letter was also published in response to the original article, by David Kleijn et al., with a similar argument: we need unified solutions to support both conservation and crop pollination, not a simplified dichotomous approach.

This is what ecosystem services is all about.

As an aside, we submitted our letter with the title “Managed pollinators can deliver ecosystem services”, which I think sums up our argument better than the edited published version: “Key role of managed bees”.

HB stingless raspberry

© Manu Saunders 2018

3 thoughts on “Crop pollination depends on wild AND managed pollinators

  1. PK Read May 3, 2018 / 8:20 PM

    As always, thank you for this grounded and sensible perspective.

    Liked by 2 people

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