The simple truth is the human race will not survive, and the Earth’s ecosystem will be devastated if we don’t have pollinators. Thus, pollination is not just a fascinating history. It is an essential function of every piece of the world’s ecological cycle. Three-fourths of the world’s flowering and 35% of other crops reproduce and can grow via pollination.
Pollinators include birds, bats, bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, beetles, and other small mammals that transport pollen grains from the anther (male flower) to the stigma (female flower), and this process is known as pollination. Successful pollination allows plants to reproduce and produce seeds, fruits, and the next generation of plants.
Although pollinators are fundamental agents, it is very desolating to see the extinction of these species due to modern agricultural practices, climate change, habitat loss and decreasing crop diversity. The intense and large-scale agricultural activities threaten the pollinators as they lose their nesting and feeding habitats, eventually reducing their population. This is a dire threat to the ecosystem. An approach to safeguard pollinators is through agroecological practices, bringing together agriculture and ecological principles towards a sustainable food production system. Let’s look through several ways to protect pollinators from an agroecological point of view.
Pest management matters (2,3)
Pesticides are very potent to pollinators as they can alter their physiological and behavioural characteristics and kill the pollinators. For instance, pesticides such as neonicotinoids and other persistent pesticides can cause Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in honeybees, where the worker bees disappear and never return to the colony, leaving behind the queen with a lack of healthy adult bees inside the hive.
Studies showed that the disruption of the honeybee supply raises prices for domestically grown nuts, fruits, and vegetables that rely heavily on pollination for growth. In addition, pollinators may be exposed to pesticides in numerous ways, including direct contact with spray residue on plants, ingesting contaminated pollen and nectar, or exposure to contaminated nesting sites or materials. Therefore, pollinator-friendly pest management practices are crucial.
Pest management without chemicals, especially in a large-scale cultivation area, is often disregarded by farmers as they opt for a faster way to kill the pests. However, scientists have shown that biological control, such as using agents like predatory insects and microbes and natural deterrents formulated from plants, exhibits predatory and parasitic relationships. Besides pruning and removing the diseased or infested plant, manually removing the pest, and use of traps can protect the pollinators. We can also plant pest-resistant varieties.
Moreover, a new framework called Integrated Pest and Pollinator Management (IPPM) has been proposed since Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is not explicitly considered ‘pollinator-friendly. IPPM is a novel approach that prioritises pollination and biological control to promote more sustainable food production.
Pardon the weeds to feed the pollinators (2,4)
Weeds are often considered unwanted plants on a farm. But, would you believe that the weeds help increase crop yield, act as natural pest control, and maintain the diversity of plants and insects? Weeds provide food resources such as nectars, nesting sites for beneficial insects, especially pollinators before, during, and after the bloom of a crop. In addition, weeds increase the diversity of an agro-ecosystem. A highly diverse and varied environment can confuse and divert the pests as well as increase the natural enemies compared to a monoculture cultivation area, thus reducing the pests outbreaks.
Therefore, a farmer does not need to apply pesticides to kill pests. Hence, accept some weeds on your farm. For example, we can set a particular area around or at the side of the farm for the weeds to grow. There are beautiful weeds in Malaysia such as creeping spiderwort (rumput kekupu), cacabean (lakum air), wild water lemon (timun padang/pokok pang bulu), sandpaper vine (akar mempelas), spanish flag (bunga tahi ayam), lesser Malayan stinkwort (daun sekentut), stone leaf, straits rhododendron (senduduk), morning glory (seri pagi) and malay ginger (setawar halia) that can be used for aesthetic purposes.
Removing invasive weeds that could harm the plants and allowing native weeds to grow in the confined area would be beneficial. Kindly do not use any chemical approaches to kill the weeds. Instead, we can use hand tools or remove the weeds by hand. Farms located near natural habitats such as forests containing native pollinators lead to adequate pollination. However, usually, native pollinators cannot spill over and penetrate the large farms. Therefore the pollination rate will be lower as they need to cover an extensive area. Thus, creating strips or pockets of flowering weeds within the farming areas is essential. This will not only serve the pollinators but also helps the growing crops to pollinate because they have alternative habitats to get a season-long food supply. However, the growth of weeds as a part of the pest management system is still an ongoing debate due to the faster invasion, but maintaining them in a good way and looking into their benefits will be very worthwhile for maintaining pollinator diversity.
Know your farming practices (5)
Crop rotation, cover crops, intercropping, and tillage are something we all have heard before and consider as eco-friendly farming practices. Interestingly these basic farming practices greatly influence the pollinators. Apart from flowering plants, manures and cover crops also provide food for the pollinators from the beginning until the main crops are harvested or planted. Intercropping system where we can plant flowering plants such as chrysanthemums, daisies, sunflowers and marigolds in between the significant growing crops is an effective method to attract diverse pollinators. Pineapples are often planted as a cash crop in between immature palms while waiting for the palms to come into production. Moreover, deep-rooted crops like carrots, tomatoes and parsnips can be intercropped with shallow vegetables such as broccoli and lettuce.
Tillage is a mechanical agitation where the soil will be stirred or turned over to prepare for farming and reduce soil compaction. Notably, most pollinators live underground or at the base of the plant for most of the year. Therefore, deep and frequent tillage will destroy their habiting sites and kills the pollinators. Practising shallow tillage (less than 4 inches) or no-till practices can reduce the pollinators’ risk. In addition, low-risk tillage types like speed tillers or blade ploughs only disrupt the soil’s surface while leaving deeper soil unaffected. It is also suggested to till only a portion of the farming land in a given year so that any developing larvae pollinators in the undisturbed nesting area can develop fully, emerge and find a new area for nesting.
Feast the pollinators with tasty meals (5)
Choosing the right plant is a vital ingredient to attract pollinators. Let it be a small garden or a larger agricultural area; cultivating one primary crop will create a poor environment for the plants to reproduce and grow. The variety of plants attracts diverse pollinators, eventually helping in the significant increase in the crops yield. For example, choosing flowering plants that bloom at different times of the year ensures a consistent supply of nectar and pollen to the pollinators. Farmers can allow a minimum of three to four plant species to grow throughout the year. It is not necessarily a flowering plant, but fruit and vegetable plants that help the farmer gain income can also be grown. Moreover, plants’ different colours and shapes of flowers or fruits, preferably grown in clumps, are very effective for pollination.
The growth of annuals and perennial plants in an agro-ecosystem is encouraged. The establishment of native plants, including wildflowers and flowering shrubs along the margins of the fields, attracts more wild and native pollinators. These practices can serve as nesting sites for other beneficial insects, thus maintaining a stable food chain and ecological cycle. Most importantly, organic farming without any inputs of agrochemicals and a higher provision of flower resources contributes to a consistent, stabilising effect on pollinator diversity.
Unfortunately, agricultural practices have been relatively stagnant, changing the ecosystems rapidly over many years. As a result, there’s been a massive reduction in the population size of the pollinators for the past decades. Ninety percent (90%) of the plants in this world need pollinators for their continual growth. Over time, our dependence on pollinators will grow as much as the population increases because the plants need the pollinators to reproduce, turning into the food we consume every day.
In conclusion, agroecology is the saviour concept where it allows nature and agriculture to benefit from each other. Maximising crop yields and preserving pollinator diversity can be achieved via sustainable farming practices. Not only the farmers but each of us is responsible for protecting the pollinators. Even a tiny garden grown organically in your home will save these most beautiful and functional creatures.
This article was written by Kuganesh Ravientheran who interned with Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) in 2021.
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