Bees can help boost food security of two billion small farmers at no cost: FAO

Feb 23, 2016 11:14 IST

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on 19 February 2016 brought to light the publication of a new study that quantifies how much crop yields depend on the work of bees that unknowingly fertilize plants as they move from flower to flower.

The FAO also stated that bees may have a pivotal role to play in improving the production of some two billion smallholder farmers worldwide and ensuring the food security and nutrition of the world’s growing population.

The paper, published in the magazine Science, makes the case that ecological intensification, or boosting farm outputs by tapping the power of natural processes, is one of the sustainable pathways toward greater food supplies.

Spotlight on developing nations

In the field study coordinated by FAO, scientists compared 344 plots across Africa, Asia and Latin America and concluded that crop yields were significantly lower in farming plots that attracted fewer bees during the main flowering season than in those plots that received more visits.

When comparing high-performing and low-performing farms of less than two hectares, the outcomes suggest that poorly performing farms could increase their yields by a median of 24 per cent by attracting more pollinators to their land.

The research also looked at larger plots and concluded that, while those fields also benefited from more pollinator visits, the impact on yields was less significant than in the smaller plots. It was probably because many bees have a harder time servicing large fields, far from their nesting habitat. However, a diversity of bees, each with different flight capacities, can make the difference.

Unstudied facts

Pollinators, such as bees, birds and various types of insects that fly, hop or crawl from one flower to another, have for centuries been the invisible helpers of farmers worldwide.

Different types of bees have distinct tastes and roles to play in the food system. For example, Bumble bees are one of the few types of bees that can successfully pollinate tomatoes.

Honey bees are important because they are the least picky in their choice of flowers.

The study shows that for smallholdings, crop yield increased linearly with increased visits to the flowers that were being tracked.

Pollination was the agricultural input that contributed the greatest to yields, beyond other management practices.

Tricks to attract bees

The report also found that attracting pollinators to farms is not as easy as planting for the season and waiting for them to arrive.

Maintaining habitat and forage resources all year long is the key to attracting pollinators and keeping them on the land for longer periods of time.

Maintaining flowering hedge rows around the farm and mulch on the ground that bees can hide under apart from reducing the use of pesticides.

The key to getting the best yields probably lies in a mix of managed pollination services. For example, installing bee hives in plots at flowering time and wild pollination.

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