Pre-emptive action — not reactive mitigation — needed to save pollinators

Pollinators are facing changing and increasingly challenging risks — from the expansion of corporate agriculture to new classes of insecticides, climate change and emerging viruses. New research published today in PeerJ  identifies the most serious future threats to — but also opportunities for — pollinating species.

The results have left researchers to call for global policies of proactive prevention, rather than reactive mitigation to ensure the future of these vital species.

An international group of scientists, government researchers, and NGOs, including Professor in Botany, Jane Stout, from Trinity College Dublin's School of Natural Sciences, conducted the study with support from the EU-funded network SuperB.

Prevention, not panic

Using an organised, systematic formal process of gathering information known as “horizon scanning”, the researchers identified potential threats, risks and emerging issues that require preventative action, and opportunities to take advantage of, in order to protect the insects, birds, mammals, and reptiles that pollinate wild flowers and crops.

Professor Stout said: “Pollinators ensure seed and fruit production in the vast majority of crop and wild plant species, but many species of pollinator are in decline as a result of a range of human activities. Although we know what many of the drivers of pollinator loss are, we tend to try and mitigate this, rather than prevent loss in the first place.”

Professor Brown of Royal Holloway University of London was the lead author of the study. He said: “This is an expensive and back-to-front solution for a problem that has very real consequences for our well-being. Most research focuses on the battles already being fought, not on the war to come.”

Priority pollinator challenges

The research highlights consolidation of the agri-food industries as the single biggest threat to pollinators world-wide, with a small number of companies now having unprecedented control of land. The rise in transnational land deals for crop production are most concerning. For example, the large areas of Brazil that are used for soybean export to China now occupy over 40 million hectares.

Sarina Jepsen, Director of Endangered Species and Aquatic Programs, The Xerces Society and Deputy Chair, IUCN Bumblebee Specialist Group, said: “This homogenisation of agricultural practices effectively means that corporates are applying blanket production systems to landscapes that are vastly different, significantly reducing the diversity and number of native pollinators.”

Positives on the horizon

However, the researchers also found more explicitly positive opportunities for pollinators. For example, the current and future reduction of chemical use in non-agricultural land, gardens and parks could be fruitful for pollinating populations.

Professor Brown said: “We must continue to encourage these practices across industry, government, and the public, so that we give our important pollinating species the support they need to do their vital work.

Professor Stout said: “The increased awareness of pollinator decline, and the enthusiasm of public and private bodies for their conservation, provide an opportunity to manage large areas of land in a way that is positive for pollinators. This requires co-operation and co-ordination between agri-food industries, NGOs and researchers.”

She continued: “This is at the heart of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, which brings together 68 governmental and non-governmental organisations to make Ireland pollinator friendly. We are currently publishing guidelines for different bodies (including local communities, gardeners, businesses and farmers) to promote pollinators across the island of Ireland. These actions will help mitigate existing and future risks to pollinators.”

Published in July 2016 by the National Biodiversity Data Centre, the Garden Guidelines: Actions to help pollinators show exactly what a pollinator-friendly garden looks like, and even describe how to make your garden “gold standard” for pollinators. The suggested actions are based on scientific research, and are the measures that are most likely to benefit Irish pollinators. A range of actions are listed, in order to suit gardens of any size. Whether a garden has just a few window boxes or is a large community allotment, if it contains pollinator-friendly flowers it can provide food for hungry bees.

Along with these sectoral guidelines, the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan team is publishing practical “how-to” guides. Each week, starting on 27 July 2016, guides for creating nesting sites, collecting wild flower seeds and managing hedgerows will be published. The first, Creating pollinator nesting habitat, is now available on the National Biodiversity Data Centre website.

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