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Insights into Editorial: Decline of pollinators threatens food supply

Insights into Editorial: Decline of pollinators threatens food supply

30 March 2016

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The wild pollinators are declining, and their loss will imperil our food supply, warns a recent United Nations report, based on the global assessment of pollinators by an international team of more than 75 scientists from different parts of the world, including India.

  • The large scientific panel was brought together by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services (IPBES). Endorsed by the governments of 124 countries, the report was released last month in Kuala Lumpur.

What are Pollinators?

Pollinators are biotic agents that move pollen from the male anthers of a flower to the female stigma of a flower to accomplish fertilization or ‘syngamy’ of the female gametes in the ovule of the flower by the male gametes from the pollen grain.


  • Insect pollinators include bees, (honey bees, solitary species, bumblebees); pollen wasps (Masarinae); ants; a variety of flies including bee flies and hoverflies; lepidopterans, both butterflies and moths; and flower beetles.
  • Vertebrates, mainly bats and birds, but also some non-bat mammals (monkeys, lemurs, possums, rodents) and some reptiles (lizards and snakes) pollinate certain plants.
  • Among the pollinating birds are hummingbirds, honeyeaters and sunbirds with long beaks; they pollinate a number of deep-throated flowers.

Importance of Pollinators:

Most of our staple food crops such as wheat, rice, sorghum, barley and maize do not require animals for their pollination. However, wild pollinators play a very important role in the production of other crops such as some pulses, sunflower seeds, cardamom, coffee, cashew nuts, oranges, mangoes and apples.

  • Pollinators also provide a key ecosystem service vital to the maintenance of both wild and agricultural plant communities.
  • Besides, the annual economic value of the crops pollinated by animals worldwide is estimated to be between $235 billion and $577 billion (in 2015).
  • Declines in the health and population of pollinators pose what could be a significant threat to the integrity of biodiversity, to global food webs, and to human health. At least 80% of our world’s crop species require pollination to set seed.

Indian context:

According to the IPBES report, the pollinator declines are well-documented in North America and Europe but have not yet been well-researched in other parts of the world including India.

  • In India, the important pollinators of food crops are various species of honeybee, Apis, such as A. Dorsata, A. Cerana, A. Florae, A. Andreniformes and A. Laboriosa.
  • However, the both pollinators and the quality of pollinator service has declined over time. Various researchers have reported a decline in the number of honeybee colonies in India. Its negative effects are increasingly being observed. For example, in the Himalayas, apple yields in recent years have decreased.
  • However the picture in the Indian context, about the exact causes of low yields, is still unclear. That is to say, we have a very poor knowledge of the pollination systems of our animal pollinated crops, and how best we can manage the pollinators for optimal yields. This knowledge gap and lack of expertise have further aggravated this problem.

Why more research in this field is necessary?

  • Lack of data and expertise in this field is a potential crisis not only for biodiversity but also for our agricultural economy. The economic stakes are huge.
  • The value of animal-pollinated crops in India is in the tens of billions of dollars. Poor management of our pollinator species may be leading to lower crop yields and to losses of hundreds or thousands of crores annually.

What needs to be done?

The IPBES report makes a number of recommendations to restore the integrity of pollinators:

  • Improvements in the science of pollination.
  • Better land management.
  • Strong regulations underlying pesticide use.
  • Restoration and protection of habitats for wild pollinators.
  • Better monitoring of wild pollinators.
  • Strengthening the governance of natural assets.

What can the government do?

  • The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has recently launched a programme to establish a network of Indian Long Term Ecological Observatories (I-LTEO) to monitor the country’s ecosystems. The I-LTEO network offers tremendous opportunities to monitor wild pollinators and the government should make use of it.
  • Pollinators in urban areas can service and enhance food production in peri-urban areas. Wild biodiversity, including pollinators, must become a significant component of future ‘smart cities’.
  • Also, it is necessary to increase the level of investment in research on pollinators.


It is not only the science that requires attention. Policies and governance for managing landscapes — natural, agricultural, urban — are equally important. Government agencies must rethink conventional sectoral approaches and narrow disciplinary perspectives. There are many factors involved in the complex environmental challenges threatening human security today. Only well-integrated approaches can successfully address them.



About IPBES:

It is an intergovernmental body. Created in 2012 by more than 100 governments, the IPBES seeks to provide scientific information about biodiversity and ecosystem services to policymakers of the member countries. The IPBES, with its secretariat in Germany, is administered by the UN, including the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).