By Marcus Lavergne
Barren, fruitless, desolate — these are words that one could use to describe a world without pollination. The fact is that many plants don’t have the ability to produce fruits and seeds without the help of several types of animals and insects that spread pollen intentionally or accidentally.
In a world where one of Earth’s main pollinator populations, bees, is in decline, people may be looking at a future of growing scarcity for some of their favorite foods and beverages, including apples, coffee and chocolate.
Pollination means reproduction for plants. It’s the interaction between the sex organs of flowers where pollen travels from the male part, or stamen, to the female part, or pistil, and fertilizes it. The process leads to more flowers, seeds and fruits.
Although some plants can rely solely on natural forces like wind to help them reproduce, over 75 percent of angiosperms, or plants that produce flowers, need help from animals and insects. That’s according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which credits habitat loss and pesticides for some of the decline.
With that being said, there is not a huge danger of all crops or even a majority dying out around the planet, but that’s not the largest issue at hand either.
According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s publication ScienceMag.org, a recent study showed that regions with a “high prevalence of nutritional deficiencies overlapped with regions most dependent on pollinators for delivering the same nutrients.”
Nutritional deficiencies, including a dietary lack of vitamin A, iron and folate, are more prominent in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa and destitute parts of India. In more developed countries like the U.S., a notable population decline in one pollinator community is more likely to shake things up in the agricultural economy.
From the 1940s to today, the nation’s managed bee colonies have decreased from around 5 million to 2.5 million, 50 percent. At the University of Nevada, Reno, bee researchers led by Anne Leonard are working to find solutions to the growing problem.
Honey bees, a group the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls a critical link in the country’s agriculture, are in decline. It’s called Colony Collapse Disorder and the long-term consequences can be devastating. The USDA says one in three mouthfuls of food is directly or indirectly benefited by the honey bee pollination, which is also responsible for around $15 billion in yearly increased crop value.
A bee’s job is more in demand while the population’s numbers are dwindling. One pressing issue for researchers is finding ways to save bees
while maximizing their work potential. That requires more studying.
After receiving a National Science Foundation grant to study foraging behaviors in bees, Leonard and postdoctoral researcher Felicity Muth have found that bees aren’t just randomly flying about collecting nectar and pollen. They’re forming generalizations and, essentially, learning more as they go. They’re doing what they do using several brain processes, not just instinct.
“If they visit, say, a blue flower and there’s really good nectar and then they go to a yellow flower and there’s very bad nectar, the bee quickly learns, ‘OK, next time I go to choose between flowers, I’m going to go to the flower that I remember having the really good nectar,’” Muth said.
According to Muth, bees can learn far more than color associations. Identifying flowers through factors like odor, texture, electromagnetic fields and temperature aren’t beyond a bee’s mental capabilities.
Making nectar associations has been well-studied among bee researchers internationally according to Leonard and Muth. The next step involves studying foraging for pollen and the connections bees make between pollen and different types of flowers. Although they’re calling the research basic, it’s leading to new discoveries in bee behavior.
“It’s something that’s kind of important in understanding how bees, in their natural environment, decide to visit different types of flowers, how they forage [and] their foraging dynamics,” Muth said. “From that kind of stuff we can make inferences about using bees in agriculture. Honey bees and bumblebees are both really important for a lot of crops that we have.”
Bees don’t eat pollen directly, which makes it difficult to determine how bees decide how to choose flowers during pollen foraging. Muth is finding out they can still decipher between good and bad types based on other factors.
Pollen is the sole source of protein for bees. According to Leonard, findings in the way bees forage the nutrient could be key in understanding more about the decline of bees and human interaction in their natural environment.
“Wild bees are declining,” Leonard said. “They’re having many difficulties, and one factor of many factors is probably as we change the plant communities available to them, we’re changing the nutrition that’s available to them, yet, we don’t even know very much about how they forage for pollen or how they learn in relation to pollen.”
Recently, the bumblebees in Leonard’s lab have associated color in artificial flowers to pollen that they’ve developed expectations toward. In nature, that means bees are using cognitive abilities to identify where and what type of pollen is available.
The cognitive connection is an important finding for Leonard and Muth. If current research shows that pesticides disrupt bees’ abilities to learn and forage for nectar, there’s a good chance that foraging for pollen is also being hindered. That can become bad news for crops that only provide pollen rather than nectar, such as tomato plants.
According to Leonard, losing bees can mean horrific consequences, at least economically. By continuing to study and understand them more, scientists are bringing attention to the insect and its place in Earth’s ecology.
For a creature that does all of its pollination work for free, scientists and researchers are asking the public to watch closely and help out. A consistent decline in bee populations could mean more than just losing the honey in that morning cup of tea.
Marcus Lavergne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @mlavergne21.