Protecting Pollinators: Safeguarding Nature’s Essential Insect Workforce


Sourin Ray

Student of Agricultural Sciences at Visva Bharati University, Shantiniketan

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In the huge and diverse agroecosystem, there is an essential yet unsung player: the humble pollinator insect. These winged wonders visit one blossom after another, transferring pollen—truly allowing the reproduction of countless plant species, including many crop plants that grace our plates. Without this diligent work, the food system would be in peril. This makes the conservation of pollinators a pressingly important global issue.

The Invaluable Contribution of Pollinators

Pollinators are the unseen agents in this enormous realm of agriculture, responsible for nearly 75% of the earth’s flowering plants and crops. The value of their services is anywhere between $235-577 billion a year for the global food economy. Pollination is key to getting high-yield, nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, forage, and hay for livestock. Most foods we consume, such as apples, almonds, blueberries, and broccoli, largely depend on insect pollination. Crops like soybeans and cotton capable of self-pollination have better quality and yield when visited by insects. Also, pollinators sustain the earth’s biodiversity, allowing wild plants to reproduce, which, in turn, provides food and habitat for many other organisms. These tireless workers hold up entire ecosystems; without them, catastrophe is just bound to hit agriculture and the environment.

The Diverse World of Pollinator Insects

When it comes to pollinators, we mostly think of the busy honeybee. However, the pollinator community is much more diverse and includes many insect species. Bees take the lead due to their unbeatable prowess in pollination.

  • Bees: Pollination Champions

Nature offers no better carrier of pollen than bees. With their special behavioral characteristics and modified body parts, bees are professional pollinators. The most famous species is the European honeybee (Apis mellifera), which pollinates most food crops. Thousands of other native bee species help to pollinate our natural and agricultural ecosystems.

  • Worker Bees: The Unsung Heroes

The real heroes of pollination are the worker bees of a colony. Worker bees collect nectar and pollen; as they do so, they transfer pollen from one flower to another. Their bodies are covered with branched hairs that readily catch and spread pollen grains from one flower to another.

In the crop and orchard, commercial farmland, bees may pass from every blossom, collecting nectar and depositing pollen on the stigma, which is essential for fruit or seed production. Without their services, most crops (apples, almonds, cherries, blueberries, and many others) would not have fruits.

In addition to cultivated crops, bees pollinate wild plants, preserving biodiversity and supporting the integrity and survival of the entire ecosystem.

  • Other Pollinators

Bees are the primary pollinators, but the pollinators’ community includes a rich and varied tapestry of butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, and even some species of wasps, ants, crickets, and cockroaches—all involved in pollination. Each group of pollinators has unique features and preferences, providing a wide range of reproductive success for a wide range of plant species.

The Threat of Pesticides for Bees

While pesticides are designed to protect crops from harmful pests, their incautious use (and the use of non-bee-friendly pesticides) can have catastrophic consequences for pollinators. Most insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides are, in fact, toxic to these critical insects. They can be lethal when they come in direct contact with bees or by contaminating food sources and habitats and harming them indirectly.

Due to their extensive and widespread use, neonicotinoid insecticides have been implicated in the decline of pollinator populations worldwide. Systemic neonicotinoids are taken up by the plant and persist in the pollen and nectar, which, in most cases, leads to dangerous doses for the pollinators. Neonicotinoids have been proven to affect the orientation, reproductive abilities, and immune system of bees and also, to a large extent, lead to the collapse of the colony.

But neonicotinoids are not the only problem. Older classes of insecticides, such as organophosphates and pyrethroids, can also be highly toxic to bees and other pollinators. These insecticides can have acute effects, such as causing immediate paralysis and death, and chronic effects, such as sublethal exposure, which can manifest as reduced foraging ability and impaired larval development.

How to Protect Pollinators: A Call to Action

  1. Integrated Pest Management (IPM): IPM is a holistic approach that includes the application/adoption of a combination of strategies, from biological control and cultural practices to targeted use of pesticides as a last resort. By monitoring the population of pests and practicing preventive measures like changing crops, mixing cultivation, and using beneficial insects, they can reduce the number of pesticides needed in the form of broad-spectrum, which harms the pollinators.
  2. Selective Pesticides: When pesticide use is unavoidable, farmers should choose selective products that target specific pests while causing the least harm to nontarget organisms, especially pollinators. Such products may include spinosad (a natural insecticide) or insecticidal soaps and oils, all of which afford good pest control with comparatively low toxicities to bees and other beneficial insects.
  3. Pesticide Application—Timing and Methods: Bees’ exposure to pesticides is minimized by applying them during the cooler part of the day when they are not likely to be very active. These applications aim to minimize the spray drift from the target area and ensure the safety of pollinators in the surrounding areas.
  4. Planting specialized crops for attracting pollinators: Crops must be combined with flowering plants like buckwheat, clover, and sunflowers in crop rotation or as border plantings.
  5. Maintaining Wildflower Strips and Hedgerows: Maintaining or developing lands with indigenous wildflowers and shrubs in and around croplands serves as habitat and nutrition for pollinators.
  6. Make It Easy for Them: Establish bee boxes or habitats of naked ground and dead plant material for other kinds of solitary bees and pollinators.
  7. Precision Agriculture Methods: Technologies such as GPS-guided spraying and drone-based applications can help reduce pesticide drift and minimize unnecessary exposure to pollinators and other beneficial insects.
  8. Public Awareness and Education: Raising public awareness about the importance of pollinators and the threats they face is crucial. Educating consumers, policymakers, and farmers can foster a collective commitment to sustainable practices that safeguard these essential insects. 

The Buzz of Beekeeping

Where possible, the farmer can consider complementary pollinating practices, such as beekeeping. As the hives are kept on the farm, the pollination services in the farm’s crops increase while also doubling as an income-generating activity through the sale of honey, beeswax, and other bee products.

Responsible beekeeping practices and enhancements, such as increasing forage and following the principles of Integrated Pest Management, can secure and maintain healthy bee colonies, which in turn support overall farm productivity.

What does the future of pollinators and crop production look like

With the future in view — when food production is sustainably organized — the agenda should first be about pollinators’ security. These tiny workers are outsized to ensure our food security and preserve the biodiversity that sustains life on our planet.

After all, the coexistence of agriculture and nature can be perfectly fine-tuned to each other by practicing pollinator-friendly practices while putting in more effort to appreciate these invaluable insects. That is a reminder from the buzzing of pollinators that we are in a very delicate balancing act; we share a very big responsibility in taking care of all forms of the intricate web of life that sustains us all.


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Further reading

Natural Pollination in greenhouse crops using bumblebees and other beneficial insects

Does flower richness attract bees?

Beekeeping for beginners

Bee Poisoning from Pesticides

Field margin management to enhance wild pollinators in agroecosystems


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