The populations of many pollinator insects like bees and butterflies are in decline and climate change is making it worse. Yet, crops’ growth often relies on these little insects, the reason for which their rapid decline is raising concerns about food security. To celebrate World Bee Day 2023, which every year falls on May 20, we try to answer two questions: How does climate change affect pollinators and what can we do to protect these endangered species?
Pollinators Help Sustain Our Food System and Environment
Do you want to keep coffee as your morning pick-me-up? Do you like chocolate? Are you considering switching to a plant-based diet to reduce your carbon footprint? In a world without pollinating insects like bees and butterflies, none of these would be possible, because pollinators are key to many crop yields.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), three-quarters of all crops around the world depend on pollinating insects. By pollinating – the process by which pollen is transferred from the anther to the stigma – pollinators enable the fertilisation and production of seeds. This is why these helpful insects contribute up to US$577 billion to the world economy annually.
Without them, crop cultivation can become immensely difficult or costly, threatening food supplies and prices globally. The graph above (Image 1) shows how pollinators directly affect the cultivation and supply of fruits such as kiwi, pumpkins, apples, cocoa, and coffee beans as well as other essential sources of plant-based diets like soybeans and nuts that have been proven as less carbon-intensive alternatives to animal products. Without pollination, their yields would be significantly reduced. And given the world’s growing dependence on these insects, we can only anticipate the problem to worsen if no action is taken.
Saving pollinators also helps preserve the beautiful blossoming moments, as they aid in the pollination of many wildflowers (such as foxglove, clover, and bluebells), allowing them to reproduce. Many of these plants would not produce seeds without help from these insects, resulting in a decline in flowers and animal species that depend on them for their survival.
Rapidly Disappearing: How Does Climate Change Affect Pollinators?
Research has shown a rapid and consistent decline in pollinator populations. Average butterfly populations have almost halved since 1991 and bee populations in particular face a steep decline.
Yet, the actual problem could be much worse, as these studies offer limited insights into the situation in the less well-off regions, many of which are essential crop producers that might lack consistent data on the issue.
Much has been written about how intensive farming practices, the use of chemical pesticides and insecticides, and pollution are threatening the survival of these helpful insects. To add to the already critical situation, global warming is contributing significantly to the rapid disappearance of pollinators. But exactly how does climate change affect pollinators?
Climate change is a major threat to pollinators, with rising temperatures and increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events affecting their food sources and habitats, essential conditions on which pollinators depend for survival.
In its Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that climate change directly contributes to the loss of insects’ habitats. If we fail to achieve the most ambitious Paris Agreement goals of limiting global temperature rise to well below 1.5C and settle for a 2C pathway, the consequences will be significantly worse.
Climate change also changes the timing and availability of flowering plants, leading to mismatches between pollinators and their food sources. A study published in Science found that climate change has shifted plants’ blooming timing earlier than pollinators were active and caused certain plants to move to higher elevations, resulting in a decline in pollination.
Another study published in the journal Global Change Biology found that climate change could lead to a decline in the quality of nectar, which is the main food source for many pollinators. The study demonstrates that as temperatures rise, the sugar content of nectar decreases, making it less nutritious for pollinators. This leads to a decline in the health and reproductive success of pollinators, as well as a decline in the pollination of plants.
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How Do We Stop This?
Needless to say, cutting global emissions is key. Recognising how the current climate crisis is worsening the environment we share with many species such as pollinators, it is essential that we continue to advocate for emissions reductions. From country-level to individual businesses, more concrete and transparent roadmaps to net zero are a must.
We must at least reduce, if not eliminate, the usage of pesticides and insecticides, especially those that contain neonicotinoids, since these chemicals are detrimental to pollinators and can have a trickle-down effect on pollination as a whole.
As individuals, we can also help. For example, you can attract bees to your garden or other local green spaces. Different types of bees seek out specific types of flowers. A guide from Wildlife Trust (Image 2) shows a list of the top 30 plants to grow to attract bumblebees. Planting some of these early and others a bit later helps prolong the nectar season for bees and other pollinators, giving them enough time and nutrition to survive and flourish.
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