When I was taking GCSE biology in high school, a less preferred topic of the class was plant reproduction and pollination. A common critique of the subject was that it was dry and slightly irrelevant, because “who needs to know how plants get it on, right?”. I did not relate. Looking back, I realise that the facts around pollination were presented to us in “bits”, as individual packets of neutral scientific information, scattered and divorced from its relationship to humans. Perhaps its perceived irrelevance stemmed from that division, and from our problematic way of conceptualising nature as separate to us.
Clearly, correcting that perception and reorganising the way that we view, study, and treat nature is imperative (which coincidentally, was the takeaway point I got from David Beck’s talk on history and nature). Hence, I will try to reimagine our relationship with pollinators and attempt to show how we can engage in some cheeky GSD.
Alongside being extremely adorable, it is said that bees and other wild pollinators contribute key ecosystem services. According to a 2013 Greenpeace report, they are responsible, either directly or indirectly, for 70% of food humans consume, essentially providing every third mouthful we eat. In addition, their pollination services are provided to us completely free of charge. Without them, agriculture and manual crop pollination would be very expensive indeed. In fact, the British Beekeepers Association estimates the economic value of pollination services by honey bees and bumblebees in the UK to be over £200 million per year!
By now, everyone is well aware that bees, along with many wild pollinators, are declining in numbers. This decline began in the 1900s, but only after 2005 did scientists and activists begin to take note after a steep drop in numbers.
How do I know all this? Well, aside from being slightly invested in the bee and wild pollinator situation, I also wrote about this in some detail in my policy brief. However, something that strikes me as incorrect, is the constant reference by NGOs and peer reviewed scientific journals to the fact that these species provide us with key ecosystem services. While that is true, these services were not technically meant for humans. It is a service that pollinators would trade with flowering plants in exchange for nectar or pollen. In ecology, this trade-off is called mutualism, where both parties benefit mutually from an interaction. The pollinators provide the plants with a means to disperse their pollen to reproduce, and the plants provide the pollinators with their food resource. Note that nowhere does this biological relationship mention humans – we are behaving like the ecological equivalent of a freeriding third wheel on a date. Yet, we dub it an ecosystem service, and assign an economic value to it based on its significance to our agricultural industry.
Out of all the major threats to pollinators, over half of them are anthropogenic, arguably stemming from our regard of one half of their mutualism as an ecosystem service, an ecosystem in service to humanity, and our lack of consideration of the complex mutually beneficial relationship pollinators share with the pollinated. Especially so, when we look at the issue of insecticides. Most insecticides used within the sector are not localised and have direct and indirect effects on pollinators that tend to spread to different trophic levels through the food chain. These insecticides are normally widely applied to the environment, and combined with monocultural farming practices, they weaken the ecosystem due to the lack of biodiversity, having a ripple effect on nearby ecosystems, ultimately destroying habitats within which wild pollinators reside. There are many variations of insecticides, and an especially dangerous variation is systemic insecticides. Upon use, these chemicals are absorbed and diffused throughout a plant’s vascular system, resulting in high levels of chemical residue on pollen, compromising the main protein source of many pollinators. They are incredibly toxic, and studies show that even a tiny amount has severe physiological effects and impacts on the immune system of bees, making colonies more susceptible to diseases and parasites, such as the Varroa mite. What this fact dump means is that by treating pollination as a service to humans, we have overlooked the simple relationship between pollinator and plant, and so do not take into consideration that chemically altering one to increase agricultural output will affect the other, possibly negatively.
To give a bit more information, Greenpeace has identified seven systemic insecticides that they urge should be completely eliminated from the environment. Furthermore, it has been confirmed by the EFSA that the risks of those far outweigh the presumed benefits of increased agricultural productivity due to its function in pest control. Out of these seven insecticides, Europe has banned the use of three for two years on flowering crops.
However, a better solution would be to cut back on contemporary chemical and physical intensive agricultural practices altogether, and switch to a more ecologically friendly version of agriculture. There are urgent and immediate steps that need to be taken by governments and international organisations to achieve this, beginning with a revision and removal of government policies and incentives that support this form of agriculture. Us regular folk can help by continuously applying pressure and advocating for what is right, rethinking our relationship with pollinators and the ecosystem, and eventually reconceptualising our entire relationship with nature.
Recently, with the shift towards sustainable development, there has been an emphasis on grassroots bottom-up action, instilling faith in my fellow GSD students, as well as displaying the importance to think global, but act local. Efforts like urban farming are an attempt to scale back from large scale intensive agriculture, as well as address inequalities in the food system. As students, our timetable doesn’t leave much room for us to engage in a bit of self-sustainable farming, however, there are societies, especially within the University of Warwick, that allows us the opportunity to do so, or which at least share the same goals. You have the Warwick Allotment Society (which meets at 2pm every Wednesday at the campus allotment), Warwick Blackout, the Global Sustainable Development Society, Engineers without Borders, and these are but a few just off the top of my head, but there are many more concerned with giving back and caring for our environments.
In addition to that, I have some ideas and tips, gathered from the Internet, on how to make your garden or home more pollinator friendly and less desolate to the way you inherited it from the previous owners; Gardens in student houses are a bit like a formality, it’s basically there, because it has to be. In my search for a second-year home, I came across many abandoned backyards that could have been used better. Heck, even tossing a few mixed seeds in there would do well to increase the biodiversity in your little ecosystem. It is best to go for flowering plants, as that provides food and habitat for pollinators. Running a quick Google search for pollinator-friendly plants before planting also helps too, and the most expensive seeds add up to about 2 quid. Sunflowers and forget-me-nots are but a few that will brighten up your garden, and a bee’s day!
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