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Insect apocalypse: Australasia is facing a hidden pollination crisis

A new study reveals that Australasia – including Australia, New Zealand and nearby islands – may be on the brink of a pollination crisis. The research from Macquarie University highlights the urgent need for intervention to prevent devastating repercussions on biodiversity and food security in the region.

Lack of research 

The researchers sifted through thousands of global research papers on the decline of pollinators due to human activities. They discovered that even though a minuscule fraction mentioned Australasia, the same factors causing pollinator decline in the northern hemisphere are also prevalent in this region. 

Europe and North America’s research pointed out threats such as natural habitat loss, climate change, pesticide usage, the spread of pathogens, and the introduction of new species, all contributing to the decline of animals, including birds and insects, that serve as pollinators, and consequently, the plants they pollinate.

Insect apocalypse 

“At first glance it seems Australasia has dodged a bullet and missed the so-called insect apocalypse and other declines in pollinators,” said Honorary Professor Graham Pyke.

However, despite the scarcity of relevant research in Australasia, Professor Pyke’s team unearthed grave environmental threats to local pollinators, suggesting that the region’s pollination crisis has been overlooked.

“The same environmental threats to plants and their pollinators are happening in this region – but we haven’t been monitoring their impact,” said Professor Pyke.

Pollination crisis 

Pollination crises occur when there’s a significant decline, even to the point of extinction, of animals that act as pollinators and the plants they pollinate. 

“This is not a trivial issue,” said Professor Pyke. “In Australia, we estimate 15,000 animal species act as plant pollinators. Declines in these pollinator species will cascade through to the estimated 20,000 species of flowering plants in Australia that rely on or benefit from animal pollination to reproduce.”

“This includes many food plants such as most fruits and many vegetables, ranging from tomatoes and beans to coffee, strawberries, canola and even cacao – essential for chocolate, which rely partially or totally on animal pollination.”

Extensive work is needed

To gain a comprehensive understanding of the situation and plan subsequent interventions, Professor Pyke highlighted the need for collecting detailed taxonomic data on Australasian flora and fauna.

Study co-author Dr. Kit Prendergast, adjunct researcher at Curtin University, noted that neglecting to conserve local indigenous pollinators exacerbates the pollination crisis.

Lack of investment 

The introduced European honeybee, although instrumental in pollinating some crops in Australia, competes with native bees and can disrupt established pollination systems. 

“There are currently 1,660 native bee species which are described, and hundreds more that remain undescribed,” said Dr. Prendergast. “The investment into these bees is vastly overshadowed by the investment into the introduced honeybee.”

Study implications 

Study co-author Professor Zong-Xin Ren from the Chinese Academy of Sciences plans to extend the study to include China and other parts of Asia. 

The experts say that the region needs to step up its game in monitoring and improving conditions for pollinators to prevent widespread impacts on food security.

“Neglecting the pollination crisis in Australasia could reverberate globally, and even jeopardise biodiversity and food supply,” said Professor Pyke.

The study is published in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

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