Research and taking action – complements, not opposits for helping pollinators
How to help pollinators is something many people think about. There are several suggestions, surveys, products that all pursue this aim. Which, in general, makes me happy. However, there are some caveats. I already commented on bee-friendly plants that may not be what they appear. Another, even bigger one, is my strong aversion against simplifying. I don’t mean not making complex topics accessible. I’m talking about reducing them to single factors. Like “Save bees with our insect hotel!”. The benefit of trap nests (vulgo insect or bug hotels) is that everyone can observe solitary bees (and wasps). It’s fun and educational. But, I’m sorry to say this, trap nests don’t save the bees. Most solitary species nest in the ground and what about bumblebees and honey bees? And if we extend it to pollinators: hoverflies, butterflies and moths?
The background may be positive: people are aware of pollinator decline and want to do something to stop it. However, this sometimes leads also to another extreme: action for the actions sake. The other day there was a thread on Twitter about measures in agricultural landscape to help pollinators. There was the request to do more research on these efforts (don’t find it anymore, but I think it was @RiffBirds). One comment on this was “Enough research, we need action!”. I admit that from the outside it may seem that research takes way too much time. But, action without knowing if it really helps? I don’t think this is the right way.
Research on pollinators in agricultural landscape
Actually, research and action do not contradict each other, they are complementary. Research gives the basic information to develop practical measures. Today it may seem trivial, but if Christian Konrad Sprengel (or anybody else) wouldn’t have discovered the relationship between insects and flowers, we wouldn’t even talk about this topic at all. Because of research, we know about pollination. Because of research, we know that so many crops depend on bees, flies and all the other pollinating insects. And because of research, we know that there are measures that help to mitigate the impact of intense agriculture.
So lets take action, shall we? We know that bees need flowers, so let’s plant them. A problem in agricultural landscapes is the lack of flowering plants. Therefore, flowering strips seem a great idea. There are plenty of seed mixtures to provide food resources for bees.
But as it happens often when you look closer into a problem: These seed mixtures are designed mainly for honey bees. By this, they help managed honey bees, not pollinators. Not even bees, if we don’t make the common mistake to assume bees = honey bees. We need research to recognize that our actions don’t meet their goal. Only by monitoring flowering strips we can assess how successful and useful they really are.
Hedgerows – habitat for pollinators and natural enemies of crop pests
Hedgerows are an important element of “ecological intensification”, i.e. providing more natural habitat to wild life, in agricultural landscapes. They are also an important resource for pollinators. Not only because of their own flowering: there are often also other plants beneath them that offer even more food. They also provide nesting habitat for bees – in hollow stems or again beneath them in the ground. In hedgerows, also natural enemies of crop pests find a habitat – and there is a spill-over to the adjacent crops. Therefore, crop production profits both from pollination and reduction of pests.
But – of course there’s a but – not every hedgerow provides these “ecosystem services”. In a recent paper, the benefits of hedgerows were described. They depend not only on the hedgerow itself – how diverse and compact they are, for instance – but also from the surrounding landscape. The distance to other semi-natural habitats, the hetereogeneity of the landscape – all this influences if they are really useful to pollinators and natural enemies of crop pests. These observations provide very practical advice: how to improve the management of hedgerows, so that both wildlife and farmers get what they need: habitat and ecosystem services.
Again, it is research that provides us the necessary insights not only to take action, but also to keep improving it. Yes, research takes time. Yes, it often doesn’t give easy answers. But we live in a complex world and, ideally, research gives us the tools to understand it and deal with it.