Recently Phil Stevenson and I advised on an art/science project called Minus Pollinators which considered what a small café menu might look like if there were no pollinators to help produce the many, many fruits and vegetables and nuts that are animal pollinated.
The project is a collaboration between writer and consultant Max Fraser and artist Freddie Yauner. To quote Freddie’s description on his website, the project represents:
A dystopian future in the form of a drinks kiosk where the staples such as coffee, teas, juices, chocolate etc. are no longer available due to pollinator decline…the mobile drinks kiosk acts as an exhibition display, with artworks painted in pollen…and a take-away pamphlet…detailing the importance of insect pollinators for our collective future on this planet.
Minus Pollinators was commissioned as part of a summer-long event called Food Forever at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, after which it goes to the Groundswell festival.
It was a pleasure to work with Max, Freddie and Phil on this because art/science projects are a great way of getting the message across about the importance of biodiversity and the current environmental crisis that we are facing.
In the past couple of weeks I’ve delivered two presentations at virtual conferences. The first was at a Global Sustainability Summit run by Amity University, one of our partner institutions in India. The second was at the University of Northampton’s own internal research conference. Both of these focused on pollinators, as you might imagine, but they also referred to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 SDGs are being increasingly used as a framework for promoting the importance of biodiversity to human societies across the globe, and I’m seeing them referred to more and more often in studies and reports about pollinator conservation. That’s great, and I’m all in favour of the SDGs being promoted in this way. However I wanted to highlight a couple of aspects of the SDGs that I think are missing from recent discussions.
The first is that pollinators, and their interactions with plants, are often seen as contributing mainly to those SDGs that are directly related to agriculture and biodiversity. Here’s an example. Last week the European Commission’s Science for Environment Policy released a “Future Brief” report entitled: “Pollinators: importance for nature and human well-being, drivers of decline and the need for monitoring“. It’s a really interesting summary of current threats to pollinator populations, how we can monitor them, and why it’s important. I recommend you follow that link and take a look. However, in the section about relevant, global-level policies, the report highlights “the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – especially regarding food security (‘zero hunger’) and biodiversity (‘life on land’).
I think this is under-selling pollinators and pollination, and here’s why. First of all, as we pointed out in our 2011 paper “How many flowering plants are pollinated by animals?”, approaching 90% of terrestrial plants use insects and vertebrates as agents of their reproduction and hence their long-term survival. As we showed in that paper, and a follow up entitled “The macroecology of animal versus wind pollination: ecological factors are more important than historical climate stability“, the proportion of animal-pollinated plants in a community varies predictably with latitude, typically from 40 to 50 % in temperate areas up to 90 to 100% in tropical habitats. Now, flowering plants dominate most terrestrial habitats and form the basis of most terrestrial food chains. So the long-term viability and sustainability of much the Earth’s biodiversity can be linked back, directly or indirectly, to pollinators. That’s even true of coastal marine biomes, which receive a significant input of energy and nutrients from terrestrial habitats.
Biodiversity itself underpins, or directly or indirectly links to, most of the 17 SDGS; those that don’t have an obvious link have been faded out in this graphic:
The underpinning role of biodiversity, and in particular plant-pollinator interactions, on the SDGs needs to be stated more often and with greater emphasis than it is currently.
The second way in which I think that some writers and researchers in this area have misconstrued the SDGs is that they seem to think that it only applies to “developing” countries. But that’s certainly not the way that the UN intended them. ALL countries, everywhere, are (or should be) “developing” and trying to become more sustainable. To quote the UN’s SDG website:
“the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)….are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership.”
“the SDGs are a call for action by all countries – poor, rich and middle-income – to promote prosperity while protecting the environment.”
I interpret this as meaning that “developed” countries need to consider their own future development, not that they only have to give a helping hand to “developing” countries (though that’s important too). Just to drive this home, here’s a recent case study by Elizabeth Nicholls, Dave Goulson and others that uses Brighton and Hove to show how small-scale urban food production can contribute to the SDGs. I like this because it goes beyond just considering the agricultural and food-related SDGs, and also because by any measure, Brighton and Hove is a fairly affluent part of England.
I’m going to be talking about all of this and discussing it with the audience during an online Cafe Scientifique on Thursday 25th June – details are here. I’m also going to be exploring more of these ideas in my forthcoming book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, which is due for publication later this year. The manuscript is submitted and is about to be copy-edited. The PowerPoint slide which heads this post uses a graphic from that book that sums up how I feel about biodiversity, plant-pollinator interactions, and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Over the past couple of years I’ve mentioned urban pollinators, and specifically the work of my PhD student Muzafar Hussain Sirohi, several times; for example here and here. Muzafar is currently finishing off the writing of his thesis, and during that time he’s also managed to publish the first paper from the study.
We are really pleased with this paper because not only is it the product of a lot of hard work to systematically sample and identify the bees, but the results are really exciting: Muzafar has shown that the centre of Northampton is home to a more diverse set of bee species than expected. In fact at least 50 species of bees are thought to live within a 500m radius of All Saints Church, which is significantly more than are found in the nature reserves at the edge of the town.
Muzafar’s work involved surveying the small gardens, road verges, traffic islands, and other patches of plants in the urban centre of Northampton. These areas provide important nectar and pollen sources for the bees, whilst old stone walls and bare soil offer opportunities for nesting sites. This community of bees includes one nationally rare Red Data Book species called Coelioxys quadridentata that is known from rather few sites.
Our estimate of about 50 species of bees is certainly too low because we focussed on the more neglected groups of bees and didn’t include the social bumblebees. The true figure is likely to be over 60 species, a remarkable number given the small area surveyed.
As I’ve discussed many times on this blog, pollinators such as bees are hugely important both ecologically (most plants require them for reproduction) and economically (much of our food production relies directly or indirectly on pollination by animals). However a significant proportion of bee species in the UK are declining in abundance, and some have gone extinct. Understanding how these bees are distributed across the landscape, including urban areas, is crucial to the conservation of such pollinators in a rapidly changing world. The project therefore has implications not only for conservation of biodiversity, but also food security, given the number of urban gardeners who grow their own food, and the ability of many bees to travel significant distance from urban to rural areas.
The research is published in the international, peer-reviewed Journal of Insect Conservation. The full reference (with a link to the abstract) is:
Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about urban pollinators, that is to say bees, hoverflies, butterflies, and other animals, living and foraging in towns and cities. As I recounted in my recent post about the National Pollinator Strategy seminar at Westminster, Jane Memmott presented some of the first data from the Urban Pollinators Initiative which is looking very interesting. At the same time, Muzafar Hussain has submitted the first manuscript from his PhD study of urban solitary bees in Northampton, and will hopefully be defending his thesis early next year. More recently I was asked to examine the PhD thesis of Rob Fowler at the University of Birmingham, whose focus has been on pollinators across an urban-rural gradient. Rob did very well and I look forward to seeing his work published.
Interesting though all this work is, it’s largely being done outside the context of crop pollination per se, focusing mainly on the identity and abundance of these urban pollinators. It’s timely, therefore that a study has just been published by Thebo et al. in the journal Environmental Research Letters entitled “Global assessment of urban and peri-urban agriculture: irrigated and rainfed croplands” which gives the first comprehensive figures on the extent of agriculture in and around the world’s large towns and cities. The paper is open-access so you can read its findings for yourself, but the main message is that urban agriculture is more extensive and important than previously assumed, and there are significant implications for food security and water resources.
The research has (justifiably) received quite a lot of publicity in the media, for example on the BBC News website, and is a great contribution to a still limited field of study. One aspect jumped out at me though; when discussing the limitations of their methods the authors state that: “the scale and methods used……are not structured to capture very small, spatially dispersed areas of urban croplands”. In other words, urban gardens and allotments are not included in this assessment. In the UK at least this is a significant limitation as we know that urban fruit and vegetable growing is widespread, though as far as I’m aware there’s no published figures on the volume and value of this local horticulture of food crops.
Which brings us back to urban pollinators: a significant fraction of these crops (large-scale and local garden) requires pollination by insects. As I reported back in July, in our own urban garden this includes at least 15 crops (strawberries, apples, greengages, cherries, blackcurrants, squashes, courgettes, blackberries, fennel, runner beans, french beans, passion fruit, tomatoes, raspberries, and radish pods). An integrated study of urban agriculture/horticulture in the context of pollinator diversity and abundance would be a great piece of research and is long overdue.