The power of pollinators: why more bees means better food

How bees impact nutrition and why and how to preserve them

24 Aug 2016

What do cucumbers, mustard, almonds and alfalfa have in common? On the surface it appears to be very little. However, there is one thing they do share: They all owe their existence to the service of bees. There is more to the tiny striped helper than sweet honey and a painful sting. For millennia, it has carried out its service behind the scenes, without winning much recognition for its many contributions to food production. Bees of all stripes play an important part in agricultural production, forestry and climate regulation. Currently however, pollination services are showing declining trends around the world, which has direct effects on crop yields and nutrition.

In the Zero Hunger podcast series, FAO explores why pollinators are vital to food production and what we can do to preserve them

Here are five buzzing facts about bees:

1. They increase food quantity  

Bees and other pollinating insects are currently improving the food production of 2 billion small farmers worldwide, helping to ensure food security for the world's population. Research shows that if pollination is managed well on small diverse farms, with all other factors being equal, crop yields can increase by a significant median of 24 percent.

2. They increase food quality

Foods richest in micro nutrients such as fruits, vegetables and seeds depend on pollination. If a plant has been well pollinated, meaning that it received quite a large amount of pollen, a larger and more uniform fruit will develop. Round apples for instance, would imply sufficient pollination, whereas misshaped apples would imply insufficient or imbalanced pollination. Generally, plants put more of their resources into pollinated fruits, increasing quality and taste.

3. Bees and pollinators need favorable environments to be happy

Pollinators need good foraging resources, places that are rich in flowers pollen and nectar. They need a place to nest and to eat, and a natural, non-toxic environment. One hundred years ago, small, diverse and pesticide-free farming systems proved very favorable for pollinators. Such environments can still be found today in developing countries such as Kenya.

4. Their biggest threats

The absence of an appropriate habitat for bees could lead to a continuous decline in pollination. Mono-cropping, pesticides and higher temperatures associated with climate change all pose problems for bee populations and, by extension, the quality of food we grow. Declining pollination also poses an immediate threat on nutrition. If this trend continues, nutritious crops such as fruits, nuts and many vegetable crops will be substituted increasingly by staple crops like rice, corn and potatoes, eventually resulting in an imbalanced diet.

5. Protection measures for farmers and governments

For farmers: Farmers should create a good habitat for bees in order to ensure pollination. Recommended practices include leaving some areas under natural habitat, creating hedgerows, reducing or changing the usage of pesticides, leaving nesting sites and planting attractive crops such as cassava around the field. The latter is often applied by farmers in Ghana and has yielded more than satisfactory results.                          

On a policy level: Based on a report by the intergovernmental platform of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service, governments should support a more diverse agriculture and depend less on toxic chemicals in order to facilitate an increase in pollination, leading to improved food quality and a surge in food quantity.

Teaching farmers to value pollinators and apply methods to keep them buzzing around the farm year-round is increasingly important. They need to see bees as allies rather than their enemies. However, it is only part of the larger job of changing attitudes and practices that value natural processes like pollination – not only in the fields but also in the halls of government. Listen to the full episode here.

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