Imagine a world without pollinators…

by Peter Smith

Well, first off it wouldn’t look very pretty. It would be mainly green and brown because there wouldn’t be any flowers which rely on insect pollinators. Plants such as grasses, leafy greens, melons and cucumbers which use the wind for pollination would be fine. But no reds, no blues, no oranges, yellows or magentas; just green and brown.

Protecting Our Pollinators

It wouldn’t smell as good either as without the flowers there would be no scents. No rose, no sweet pea, no honeysuckle or night-scented stock. Maybe just a smell of damp earth and cabbage.

And it would be much quieter. Maybe too quiet. No buzzing insects. No birds. And probably no cars or trucks or airplanes either because there wouldn’t be many people either.

In fact, it would all look pretty much like it did 150 million years ago which was when the first bees started to develop. Bees started out as wasps but over time developed a taste for nectar and pollen instead of animal protein and evolved into the many species of bee we have today. We know this because of the fossilised bee found in New Jersey (home of The Sopranos) which was dated to150 million years ago (149, 999, 990 years before the final series was shown).

And with the bee there followed an explosion of angiosperms (flowering plants) taking advantage of insect pollination and competing to attract the pollinators — using flowers, scent, and sometimes, trickery to get bees and other insects to visit them. Flowers evolved into more and more exotic and unique configurations and developed ever closer links with pollinators to the point we’re at now where this intricate web of connectivity supports not just the food we eat but the food that all the other animals we share in our world eat too.

There are an awful lot of insects in the world — estimated at one quintillion individual insects (that’s 10 to the power of 18) which equates to about 1.2 billion insects per person. Sounds like an awful lot (maybe too many for some) and yet this number has dropped by almost half in the last fifty years. And it’s estimated that every year we lose a further 2.5% of the biomass of insects every year — that’s about 100,000 tonnes. If things continue at the current rate we could lose a further 50% of our remaining insects by 2025 including countless species that haven’t even been discovered yet.

Blue tits eat 3.5 billion caterpillars each year. Swifts can consume up to 100,000 insects in one day. Bats can wolf down 1200 insects in an hour. Insects support a massive number of different species.

Worried? We should be. We don’t know what will happen if we lose the greater part of our insect biomass and diversity but we can say with some certainty that it won’t be good. Fortunately for us here in the UK although we’ve lost a lot of our insects (up to 70% in the last 50 years say some reports) it’s not too late — insects are, after all, insect-sized and don’t need the sort of reserves that a Rhino might need. It’s estimated that the combined area of all the back gardens in the UK is equal to 20% of the size of Wales — that’s space for a lot of insects. If we all devoted at least a part of our gardens to protecting our pollinators the overall impact could be huge.

For more information on how to do this, check out this video from the National Pollinator Strategy:

With thanks to Peter Smith for this week’s Random Dialogue.

Peter will be speaking at ZERO in Guildford on Friday 10th June, info here and a Labour party summer event on the 29th, plus joining me for a live-streamed Random Dialogue in the future too (I hope).

Jane Tyson

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