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Mass Extinction Of Insect Pollinators Threatens Global Food Crops: How Science Saves Dwindling Bee, Butterfly Populations

29 February 2016, 12:33 am EST By Alyssa Navarro Tech Times
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As populations of important insect pollinators continue to dwindle to near-extinction, scientists all over the world are depending on various methods to save the species, and ultimately, save the global food supply.

Numerous insect pollinator species such as bees and butterflies - as well as their vertebrae counterparts — are vital to the world's annual food source, yet they remain on the verge of a mass extinction.

Two of five species of butterflies and bees are on their way to becoming extinct, while one out of six vertebrate pollinator species is facing its end, a mega-report by the United Nations revealed.

It's only a matter of time before pollinators completely disappear; and unless something is done about the problem, billions of dollars' worth of food crops will be severely affected.

Nevertheless, unlike climate change, solutions to fix the matter on dwindling populations do not require countries to agree on global action. In particular, the solution can be done on the local level.

Working Towards Food Security

Experts cannot point to one single culprit to conclusively explain why populations are shrinking.

According to a report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the problem is a combination of different factors.

This includes the changes in land use; climate change; the use of pesticides; habitat loss to urbanization; pathogens, parasites and diseases; as well as a very controversial one - the use of neonicotinoid insecticides that supposedly attacks the pollinators' immune system.

Despite the report's grim findings, scientists believe that the populations of insect pollinators can be saved.

David Inouye of the University of Maryland said there are relatively inexpensive and simple mechanisms for turning the trend around.

Among these mechanisms are sustainable agricultural practices; traditional crop rotation and indigenous practices; the creation of diversity in urban and agricultural landscapes; educating farmers, beekeepers and citizens; pathogen control; and decreasing the use of pesticides.

Achim Steiner, UN's Environment Programme director, said it is vital to approach the issue with a consideration of the environmental impacts that drive it.

"Sustainable development, including improving food security for the world's population, necessitates an approach that embraces the environment," said Steiner.

Save The Butterflies And Bees

One of the problems that countries such as the United States have is that giant swaths of land are devoted to just a single crop, and wildflowers that most bees pollinate are disappearing.

In Europe, grasslands where wild pollinators thrive have disappeared since World War II. With that, England has implemented a plan in which it pays farmers to plant wildflowers for bees in hedgerows.

Some countries are relying on a fusion of agriculture and advanced technologies to save the population of bees.

In the United States, scientists have begun using artificial insemination to develop stronger and healthier bees that can resist the colony collapse disorder.

At an organic farm on Whidbey Island, scientists from Washington State University have raised drone bees that can withstand harsh hive conditions. They extract semen from drones and fertilize queen bees in hopes that the offspring share an enhanced DNA.

"With instrumental insemination, I can do things that don't happen in nature," said Susan Cobey, owner of the organic farm and lead researcher of the project. "I'm trying to enhance what Mother Nature does."

In Australia, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) teamed up with Intel to spearhead the Global Initiative for Honey bee Health (GIHH), a program that aims to make sure that bees are safe and healthy.

The initiative's top priority is to unite research efforts by using a common technology platform. CSIRO and GIHH scientists are taking Internet of Things (IoT) technology offered by Intel. In this case, they are applying it to bees.

The scientists received micro-sensor kits that are placed inside hives to monitor bees' activity. This is possible via tiny Radio Frequency Identification (RFiD) tags on the insects' backs. The tags relay data to the Intel Edison board in each hive and provide information about what happened to the insects before hives collapsed.

Professor Paulo de Souza, the project leader at CSIRO, said their goal is to solve the problems that cause the bees' population decline. He said it would be overwhelming for one group to research all the problems.

"It needs to be a global initiative, and we need to use technology and data to help find a solution," said de Souza. "And we have to do it before it's too late."

How Important Pollinators Are Important To Global Food Crops

Vera Lucia Imperatriz-Fonseca, co-chair of the detailed IPBES assessment, said insect and vertebrae pollinators are essential contributors to world food production and national security.

"Their health is directly linked to our own well-being," said Imperatriz-Fonseca.

Simon Potts, lead author of the assessment, said the planet is in a period of decline and the consequences are going to increase.

"Without pollinators, many of us would no longer be able to enjoy coffee, chocolate and apples, among many other foods that are part of our daily lives," said Potts.

Approximately 75 percent of global food crops greatly rely upon pollination by insects and vertebrates such as hummingbirds and bats.

These pollinators directly affect food production, which often amount to $235 billion to $577 billion. Agriculture's reliance on pollination has also increased by 300 percent in the last 50 years, experts said.

Bee expert Dennis vanEngelsdorp who wasn't part of the report said doing something to alleviate the problem is crucial.

"Everything falls apart if you take pollinators out of the game," said vanEngelsdorp. "If we want to say we can feed the world in 2050, pollinators are going to be part of that."

Photo: Cory Barnes | Flickr

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