Over three years, researchers followed the activities of nearly 74,000 from more than 780 species. The team looked at 90 projects to monitor bee at 1,394 crop fields around the world.

They found that on average, wild bees contribute $3,251 a hectare to crop production, ahead of managed honeybee colonies, which were worth $2,913 a hectare.

The study adds to attempts to place a dollar figure on “ecosystem services” – the natural resources that feed us – to discourage environmental plundering.

The rest, while crucial for the ecosystem, are less so for agriculture – so conservationists may undermine their own argument by promoting a purely economic argument for the protection of bee biodiversity, the authors said.

“Rare and threatened species may play a less significant role economically than common species but this does not mean their protection is less important,” said David Kleijn, a professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who led the study.

Honeybees in many parts of the world are suffering a catastrophic decline, variously blamed on pesticides, mites, viruses or fungus. Last month US watchdogs reported that US had lost 42% of their colonies from the previous year, a level deemed too high to be sustainable.

“This study shows us that wild bees provide enormous economic benefits but reaffirms that the justification for protecting species cannot always be economic,” said a co-author, Taylor Ricketts of the University of Vermont.

According to the UN’s and Agricultural Organisation, about 80% of flowering plant species are pollinated by insects, as well as by birds and bats.

At least a third of the world’s agricultural depend on these unpaid workers, the UN agency says on its website. Crops that require pollination include coffee, cocoa and many fruit and vegetable types.

“Crucially, the commonest wild bees are the most important, which gives us the ‘win-win’ situation where relatively cheap and easy conservation measures can support these and give maximum benefit for the crops,” said Pat Willmer, a professor of biology at Scotland’s University of St Andrews.

“For example, planting wildflowers with wider grassy margins around crops, as well as less intensive or more organic , all enhance abundance of the key crop-visiting bees,” she told Britain’s Science Media Centre.

Researchers followed the activities of nearly 74,000 bees from more than 780 species at 90 projects around the world.
Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex Shutterstock

 

 

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