By: Damian Carrington
Published: The Guardian,  28 February 2013

Photograph: Michael Kooren/Reuters

The decline of wild bees and other pollinators may be an even more alarming threat to crop yields than the loss of honeybees, a worldwide study suggests, revealing the irreplaceable contribution of wild insects to global food production.

Scientists studied the pollination of more than 40 crops in 600 fields across every populated continent and found wild pollinators were twice as effective as honeybees in producing seeds and fruit on crops including oilseed rape, coffee, onions, almonds, tomatoes and strawberries. Furthermore, trucking in managed honeybee hives did not replace wild pollination when that was lost, but only added to the pollination that took place.

“It was astonishing; the result was so consistent and clear,” said Lucas Garibaldi, at the National University in Río Negro, Argentina, who led the 46-strong scientific team. “We know wild insects are declining so we need to start focusing on them. Without such changes, the ongoing loss is destined to compromise agricultural yields worldwide.”

Pollination is needed for about three-quarters of global food crops. The decline of honeybee colonies due to disease and pesticides has prompted serious concern. Jason Tylianakis, at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, described them as “the species charged with protecting global food security”.

The new research shows for the first time the huge contribution of wild insects and shows honeybees cannot replace the wild insects lost as their habitat is destroyed. Garibaldi said relying on honeybees was a “highly risky strategy” because disease can sweep through single species, as has been seen with the varroa mite, and single species cannot adapt to environmental changes nearly as well as a group of wild pollinators.

“The studies show conclusively that biodiversity has a direct measurable value for food production and that a few managed species cannot compensate for the biodiversity on which we depend,” said Tylianakis, who was not part of the research team.

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