New research shows impact pollinators have on food production

A recent study from UC Berkeley researchers highlights the importance that pollinators — some of which are dwindling in numbers — have in crop production.

Researchers across the United States and Germany, including UC Berkeley professor of environmental science, policy and management Claire Kremen, discovered that pollination increases crop production even with reduced water and no nutrients. They examined the effects that pollination had on almond trees in northern California by carrying out a variety of experiments that manipulated the trees’ intake of pollination, water and nutrients.

“This is incredibly important and interesting research,” said Rich Hatfield, a conservation biologist who previously worked as Kremen’s research assistant. He added that the research is a “very strong indicator that we should be creating pollinator habitats on farms and around farms.”

Utilizing different techniques of open pollination, supplemental hand pollination and no pollination, along with manipulating irrigation and fertilization, researchers tested the extent to which pollinators contributed to crop yields.The results demonstrated that trees pollinated by hand bore more but smaller nuts and that trees left to pollinate by pollinators bore fewer but slightly larger nuts.

According to Hatfield, pollinators directly affect the availability of food: One in three bites of food people eat depends on pollinators, and 85 percent of flowering plants require animal pollination to flower.

The research, which corresponds with the topics of this year’s National Pollinator Week — which came to a close Sunday — emphasizes the importance that pollinators have in directly affecting human lives and raising awareness of pollinators that may be in danger of extinction. National Pollinator Week was approved by the U.S. Senate seven years ago to educate the public about pollinators, which include bees, birds and butterflies.

Hillary Sardinas, a UC Berkeley graduate student in the department of environmental science, policy and management who works in Kremen’s lab, said more awareness about pollinators is needed, as some native bee populations are declining, although they are not yet completely extinct.

Creating pollinator habitats in areas surrounding farms by planting flowers that are attractive to pollinators would be more fruitful than spending money on fossil fuel-based fertilizers, Hatfield said, suggesting that the research should prompt agriculture to change its business model.

Last Friday, the Department of Agriculture announced that it will provide $8 million to help boost declining honeybee populations in five Midwest states. The funds will also provide incentives for farmers in the Midwest to create new pollinator habitats.

“We need to expand the conversation beyond honeybee species,” Hatfield said, adding that the honeybee is not native to the United States, where there are approximately 4,000 bee species. “(But) it is a good and encouraging first step.”

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