Insects are in trouble. That doesn’t make them special, or anything (they were always special to me), but they play a vast number of important roles in our various ecosystems, including the pollination of certain plants. Knowing the people who read this blog, I’m sure you find this information to be shocking and new, especially as I’ve never written about it before.
Jokes aside, though, this is an issue that has had a lot of people worried for a long time now. A lot of blame has been placed on the heavy use of pesticides required to keep our current monoculture farming regime from completely collapsing, plus those used in more residential and recreational settings. I think that’s certainly a reasonable thing to look at, but it’s also reasonable to look at habitat destruction, as well as the just-mentioned use of monoculture farming. Poison obviously affects one’s ability to live and thrive, but so to does having one’s ecosystem fall apart (something to which we should probably pay attention).
A German research team has now provided us with yet another reason to change how we do agriculture, because it turns out that the lack of diversity that characterizes modern food production is bad for bees and other insects.
There are often too few flowering plants in agricultural landscapes, which is one reason for the decline of pollinating insects. Researchers at the University of Göttingen have now investigated how a mixture of crops of faba beans (broad beans) and wheat affects the number of pollinating insects. They found that areas of mixed crops compared with areas of single crops are visited equally often by foraging bees. Their results were published in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment.
The researchers observed and counted foraging honeybees and wild bees in mixtures of wheat and faba bean and in pure cultures that only contained faba beans. “We had expected that the mixed crops with fewer flowers would be visited less frequently by bees for foraging than single crops,” says PhD student Felix Kirsch from the Functional Agrobiodiversity research group, University of Göttingen. “To our surprise, this was not the case.”
This could be due to several reasons. “Our mixed cultures were less dense than pure cultures, which possibly increased the visibility of the flowers. This might have attracted the similarly large number of bees to the mixed cultures,” suggests Dr Annika Haß, postdoctoral researcher in the Functional Agrobiodiversity research group. “In addition, reduced competition between the faba bean plants in mixed cultures could mean that they can invest more resources in the production of nectar and pollen to increase their attractiveness to bees,” adds Professor Wolfgang Link, head of the group for Breeding Research Faba Bean.
“Mixed cultivation of wheat and faba bean has also other advantages for crop production,” says Professor Catrin Westphal, Head of Functional Agrobiodiversity. For instance, yields per bean plant were higher in mixed crops than in pure cultures. “Cereal crops can be ecologically enhanced by adding legumes such as beans or lentils. This can make a valuable contribution to increasing the abundance of flowers on the arable land and thus counteracting pollinator decline,” concludes Haß.
Truly, it is one of the great burdens of our time that in order to save ourselves, we must make the world a better place to live in. We hear over and over again about the “Insect Apocalypse”, and now it turns out that part of changing course, means making the landscape more interesting? What’s next, cleaner air? No danger of being unhoused? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
I’m kinda worn out from working on a much less pleasant post, so I’ll just leave you with my regular reminder: Our problem is not a lack of solutions, it’s a political and economic hierarchy that actively hates the solutions that we do have. Obviously if you have the means to directly change or improve the landscape around you, then I heartily recommend doing so, but that will never be enough without real, dramatic political change.