Pollinator Decline

The Harvard monolithic bee Photo: Harvard Microrobotics Lab

The Harvard monolithic bee
Photo: Harvard Microrobotics Lab

The Harvard Microbiotics Lab is working on tiny robotic insects for a number of applications, among them: pollination. I can understand why, considering how important pollinating insects are for the environment and the human food supply. Most of the news tends to focus on the decline of the crucial honeybee population around the world, but a recent study has shown that honeybees are not the only threatened pollinators.

An international team of researchers investigated the issues related to pollinator decline. Pollinator insects, including bees, enable the reproduction of 75% of crop species, and over 90% of wild flowering plants. The annual economic value of these insects is in the hundreds of billions.

From a Summit County Citizen’s Voice article on the study :

“The review, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment  concluded that:

  • Pollinator populations are declining in many regions, threatening human food supplies and ecosystem functions
  • A complex interplay between pressures (e.g. lack of food sources, diseases, and pesticides) and biological processes (e.g. species dispersal and interactions) at a range of scales (from genes to ecosystems) underpins the general decline in insect-pollinator populations
  • Current options to alleviate the pressure on pollinators include establishment of effective habitat networks, broadening of pesticide risk assessments, and the development and introduction of innovative disease therapies.

“Pollinators are the unsung heroes of the insect world and ensure our crops are properly pollinated so we have a secure supply of nutritious food in our shops,” said co-author Professor Simon Potts, with the University of Reading. “The costs of taking action now to tackle the multiple threats to pollinators is much smaller than the long-term costs to our food security and ecosystem stability. Failure by governments to take decisive steps now only sets us up for bigger problems in the future.””

Insect pollinators include bees, bumblebees, moths, butterflies, gnats and beetles. Their populations can be supported, even in urban environments. From the Pollinator Partnership site:

  • Cultivate native plans, especially those that provide nectar and larval food for pollinators – Free Ecoregional (US) Pollinator Planting Guides
  • Supply salt or mineral licks for butterflies and water for all wildlife
  • Reduce pesticide use
  • Substitute flower beds for lawns

There have been many recent discoveries on previously unimagined levels of interaction between plants and pollinators, from caffeine in nectar to floral electrical charges that entice bees. Interactions are variable, subtle and so much still remains outside our realm of knowledge.

While it’s comforting to know that we can invent mechanical pollinator drones in case of need, it’s still not a bad idea to try and help the biological types survive. So go on: Plant a windowbox, put out a little dish of water, and hands off the pesticide.

Syrphid fly Photo: Eugene Reimer via nativeorchid.org

Syrphid fly, a pollinator which in larval stages is considered a bio-control for aphids and other insect pests
Photo: Eugene Reimer via nativeorchid.org


Harvard Microbiotics Lab website

Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment website

Insect Pollinators Initiative of the Natural Environment Research Council (UK) website

Pollinator Partnership, a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of pollinator health, and an excellent resource for those wishing to get involved.

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