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National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis

bee pollinating orange flower

Animal pollinators play an important role in the production of many fruits, vegetables, nuts, and flowering plants that support 35 percent of the world’s crop production, worth $577 billion annually. Over the last few decades, pollinator species – such as honey bees, butterflies, bats, and hummingbirds – have declined in many parts of the world likely due to a loss of their native habitats and exposure to toxic pesticides from intensive agriculture.

Using synthesis science, NCEAS researchers have influenced the scientific and policy dialogue on protecting pollinator species and, ultimately, food security for people. Notably, in 2006, an NCEAS working group determined just how important pollinator species are to global crop production, a first-of-its-kind study that highlighted not only the value of pollinators to people but also what we could lose if they were to continue declining.

In fact, one of the group’s resulting papers, published in Biological Scienceinformed two separate reports to guide legislation for protecting pollinator species: a 2010 US Congressional Report and an assessment from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). In short, the paper showed that severe declines in pollinator species could reduce our variety of available foods, severely impact our diets, and substantially rise the cost of certain foods.

The research team found that out of 107 leading global food crops, 33 are highly dependent on animal pollinators, and 13 cannot grow without them – for example, cocoa, squash, pumpkins, vanilla, passionfruit. To protect pollinators, maintain crop production, and support healthy diets, the researchers recommended a reduction in pesticide use and more sustainable farming practices that reduce habitat loss.

"The NCEAS model fostered an opportunity for scientists from North America, South America, and Europe to come together to share their data and ask questions about pollinators that could not be answered by a single scientist working on their own,” says Claire Kremen, one of the principal investigators of the working group. “Given the growing sense of urgency about pollinator declines, our findings on how pollinators contribute to our food supply and to human health came at a critical moment."

Overall, this research demonstrates how collaborative, synthesis science is valuable not only for answering ecological questions, but also for providing a broader perspective that is necessary for informing policies that can effectively protect human and ecosystem health.