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Bees in decline: IPBES releases global pollinators assessment

An international team has published the first global assessment of the state of the world’s pollinators today following a week-long meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The assessment, the first from the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), created in 2012, paints a comprehensive picture of the decline in pollinators, such as the western honey bee (Apis mellifera). Seventy-seven experts from around the globe compiled the assessment, which cites approximately 3,000 scientific papers. It also incorporates indigenous and local knowledge from more than 60 locations around the world.

The key findings of the new report include:

  • Almost 90% of wild plant species and over 75% of crops that people use for food depend, in part, on pollination by bees, butterflies and other animals. The report estimates the annual economic value of pollinators at $235 to $577 billion. The western honeybee is the most widespread managed pollinator in the world, producing an estimated 1.6 million tonnes of honey annually.
  • Since 1961, the volume of agricultural production reliant on pollinators has increased by 300%. Crops that depend on pollinators, however, tend to grow more slowly and have less dependable yields than crops that do not rely on pollinators.
  • Scientists are recording a decline in wild bees and other wild pollinators, particularly in northwestern Europe and North America. The number of western honeybee hives in these regions has almost doubled in the last 50 years, but Europe and North America have seen “severe declines,” says assessment co-chair Simon Potts of the University of Reading, UK.
  • More than 40% of invertebrate pollinators — including bees, butterflies and midges — and 16.5% of vertebrate pollinators — such as bats and birds — are at risk of going extinct. In Europe, evidence suggests that 9% of bee and butterfly species are threatened. But “this is probably an underestimate,” says Potts.
  • Experts are concerned by the declines. They say that the reasons for the fall in numbers include: intensive agriculture, pesticide use, pollution, the introduction of alien species, disease, use of genetically modified crops and climate change. Researchers report that in lab tests, high doses of pesticides such as neonicotinoids and pyrethroids can be lethal to pollinators. But mass-breeding and transportation practices can also spread diseases and devoting vast swathes of the land to monocultures creates poor habitats for pollinators.
  • There are several ways to improve life for bees and butterflies, the experts conclude. Instead of focusing on agricultural intensification, farmers could think more about ecological intensification — they can farm for healthy, diverse ecosystems, a practice that would also be good for the farmers’ bottom line. Creating wild corridors to connect islands of wildlife across farming landscapes will also help. Policy-makers and others can  improve the risk assessment standards for pesticides and improve instructions for their use.
  • The researchers found that indigenous knowledge can provide solutions to the dwindling numbers of pollinators. IPBES has gone further than any other major scientific assessment to include knowledge from indigenous people, industries, farmers and others alongside scientific knowledge.

    Bats pay a visit to agave plants in Brazil. Photo: Marlon Machado via Flickr

In addition to the pollination assessment, IPBES also published another assessment on scenarios and modeling and plans to publish four regional assessments shortly.

Researchers involved in the Future Earth community have been instrumental in developing IPBES and now play leading roles in the organisation. The global environmental change programme DIVERSITAS helped initiate the platform. DIVERSITAS closed in 2014, but its projects continue with Future Earth. Former DIVERSITAS director Anne Larigauderie has been appointed the IPBES Executive Secretary, and DIVERSITAS deputy director Anne-Hélène Prieur-Richard is now global hub director for Future Earth. The Future Earth delegation at the IPBES fourth plenary session in Kuala Lumpur included Prieur-Richard (Canada), Bob Scholes (South Africa), Cornelia Krug (France), Jasper Montana (UK), Wolfgang Cramer (France) and Owen Gaffney (Sweden).

IPBES’s approach to engaging diverse users and producers of knowledge is groundbreaking. The organisation has made greater commitments to integrate indigenous and local knowledge with scientific knowledge than previous international assessments of its kind. Future Earth and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) organised two stakeholder days in advance of the Malaysian plenary on behalf of IPBES. These events brought together scientists, business representatives, indigenous groups and others. Full summaries of the two days are available here and here.

Future Earth has funded two clusters to provide scientific support for IPBES: Global Biodiversity Assessment and Monitoring, Prediction and Reporting and Scientific Support for IPBES Knowledge Generation.

These initiatives will hold a joint meeting with IPBES on March 6 to 10 in Monte Verita, Switzerland.