A scarcity of both wild bees and their domesticated cousins is limiting crop yields and quality, according to a recent collaborative study of farms across the United States and British Columbia. The province’s lucrative blueberry crop is being particularly hard hit by the scarcity of pollinators, the researchers found.
Just published in the Royal Society journal Biological Sciences, the study surveyed more than 130 farms “to assess the pollination of crop flowers and yield for apples, highbush blueberries, sweet and tart cherries, almonds, pumpkins, and watermelon,” reports the Canadian Press. Its purpose was to increase scientific and public understanding of how vital insect pollinators, and especially bees, are to bountiful crops, a well-nourished population, and a strong and resilient economy.
“Crops dependent on pollinators generate more than US$50 billion each year in the United States and declining bee populations raise concerns about food security in years to come” The study stated.
Study co-author and University of Manitoba entomologist Kyle Bobiwash told CP the health of B.C.’s blueberry crops are particularly dependent upon pollinators, with differences in pollination rates between one farm and another meaning “thousands and thousands of dollars per acre” gained or lost, depending on how many bees were at work in the fields.
Quality was also affected, he added, with more pollinators contributing to juicier and likely better-tasting berries.
But Bobiwash pointed to an essential paradox in global agricultural trends: in tandem with an increase in global demand for pollinator-dependent crops (like almonds) has come crop development practices that often destroy wild bee habitat, like wholesale removal of wildflowers and weeds. He stressed that the scarcity of pollinators will not be solved by carting domestic honeybees into every field, as many crops actually depend upon wild species.
Climate change also threatens pollinators, Bobiwash added, as temperature changes shift the long-evolved, delicate relationship between plants and their pollinators.
“As temperatures warm, plants might respond by blooming earlier (and) bees might respond by emerging earlier. But that’s not guaranteed’,” he said. “We might have a plant blooming before the pollinators it evolved with emerge.”