Healthy pollinators – healthy food

By Professor Saul Cunningham

Why does biodiversity matter to people? This seemingly simple question can lead people in many different directions as they search for answers. Some species are valued by people because they are beautiful or inspiring, other species matter because they are vital to processes that people depend on, such as food production. Among these are the insects that pollinate crops and wild plants.  Pollinators have been the concern for Professor Saul Cunningham, who seeks to understand how they support our food production, and how we can keep healthy populations of pollinators in our faming landscapes. These questions have become the focus of increasing attention globally because some regions have experienced declines in pollinators, including some wild pollinator species and managed hives of honeybees.

In Australia there is particular concern about the impact that Varroa mite will make when it finally gets to Australia. As a country we have been fortunate to avoid this honeybee disease to date, but it has made it to every other beekeeping nation.

The good news is that many of the staple crops around the world do not rely on insect pollination, so declining pollination will not be a driver of starvation. However, pollination is an important input to production of many high value crops that support farmer incomes and add diversity to our diets. Put another way, pollinator decline will not affect your bread or rice, but will affect your coffee and fruit salad.

Professor Cunningham and his global network of collaborators have shown that some important pollinators are unevenly spread across Australian farming landscapes. Because they depend on a diversity of habitats for food and nesting locations, many pollinators are uncommon in the middle of large fields, but more common in areas near to patches of non-cropped land, and also benefit from the presence of scattered solitary paddock trees. As a result large areas of our crops are “under-pollinated” and therefore produce less than they should. These and similar discoveries have motivated people all around the world to integrate small patches of pollinator habitat scattered across farming landscapes.

Where wild pollinators are in short supply another strategy is to bring in managed honeybee hives to help pollinate crops. Surprisingly, this strategy is only used for very few crops around the world whereas Professor Cunningham has shown that other important crops could get a significant production boost from managed pollination. Even when honeybees are used as managed pollinators, Professor Cunningham’s team has shown that lack of knowledge about best practice means they are not being used in a way that guarantees best results. For example, almonds are Australia’s most valuable horticultural export, and this industry spends millions of dollars on honeybee pollination every year. Professor Cunningham’s work has shown that how the hives are arranged in the large orchards makes a big difference to production, and many growers have been quick to adopt improved practices. In a similar vein, growers of broadacre faba bean in South Australia have incorporated managed pollination into their practice since work by Cunningham’s team showed the potential for 17% increase in yield.

Put together, this work shows that by learning more about our pollinators and applying this knowledge we could achieve more efficient food production. But there is a double benefit, because these strategies do not require application of more agricultural chemicals, and in many cases can help support landscapes that will support great biodiversity of other kinds too.

Important though pollination is, it is only one many natural processes that are crucial to farming. Farmers also need to control pests and maintain healthy soils, two more challenges that are influenced by the number and diversity of insects and other small organisms. Professor Cunningham is part of a global network of researchers who are working to support the evolution of better farming systems that can produce enough healthy food while reducing the negative effect of inputs such as pesticides. They seek to combine the latest insights from research with the wealth of traditional farming knowledge to help improve farming all around the world. Ultimately this work is all about biodiversity and people. If we get it right, our food and production systems will be healthy and productive. We’ll be farming in a way that reduces the negative impact of farming on biodiversity, and build better farming systems by using and increasing biodiversity on the farm.

Related links

Select research papers

  • Dicks LV, Viana B, Bommarco R, Brosi B, del Coro Arizmendi M, Cunningham SA, Galetto L, Hill
  • R, Lopes AV, Pires C, Taki H, Potts SG (2016) Ten policies for pollinators: what governments can do to safeguard pollination services. Science 354, 975-976
  • Cunningham SA (2016) Human welfare and its connection to nature: what have we learned from crop pollination studies? Austral Ecology (on line early)
  • Cunningham SA, Attwood SJ, Bawa KS, Benton TG, Broadhurst LM, Didham RK, McIntyre S, Perfecto I, Samways MJ, Tscharntke T, Vandermeer J, Villard M-A, Young AG, Lindenmayer DB (2013) To close the yield-gap while saving biodiversity will require multiple locally relevant strategies. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 173: 20-27
  • Garibaldi LA, Steffan-Dewenter I, Winfree R, Aizen MA, Bommarco R, Cunningham SA, Kremen C, Carvalheiro LG, Harder LD, Afik O, Bartomeus I, Benjamin F, Boreux V, Cariveau D, Chacoff NP, Dudenhöffer JH, Freitas BM, Ghazoul J, Greenleaf S, Hipólito J, Holzschuh A, Howlett B, Isaacs R, Javorek SK, Kennedy CM, Krewenka K, Krishnan S, Mandelik Y, Mayfield MM, Motzke I, Munyuli T, Nault BA, Otieno M, Petersen J, Pisanty G, Potts SG, Rader R, Ricketts TH, Rundlöf M, Seymour CL, Schüepp C, Szentgyörgyi H, Taki H, Tscharntke T, Vergara CH, Viana BF, Wanger TC, Westphal C, Williams N, Klein AM (2013) Wild pollinators enhance fruit set of crops regardless of honey bee abundance. Science 339: 1608-1611

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