“One in three bites of food can be attributed to a pollinator”.
An overlooked ‘ecosystem service’, pollination, is essential to humanity. In Africa pollinators are primarily wild insects that travel between farms and natural habitat, and are extremely vulnerable to habitat loss and destruction. Pollinators intimately link wild species with basic human livelihoods.
The relationships between insects and flowers are at once ancient, beautifully intricate and correspondingly fragile. Saving pollinators justifies conservation of small species-rich habitats, such as forest patches and contributes to food security and rural livelihoods of the communities living close to nature/alongside critically endangered species.
Saving small patches of habitat/creating understanding of pollinators are direct ways of improving food security and alleviating poverty through increased yields. It is in the hands of rural farmers that the future of so many habitats sits. Farmers need to be engaged as partners in conservation. The beauty of pollination is that it really is where a strong and clear link can be drawn between human livelihoods, sustainability and protection of natural areas, and the myriad species they contain.
The global die-offs of honeybees have recently shown the dangers of relying on just one species. Once people recognize that something as fundamental as food production is tied to biodiversity, and given the staggering diversity of just bees alone (over 20,000 species!), there is great potential here to sustainably manage biodiversity in ways that directly reduce poverty and improve human health and nutrition.
The decline of biodiversity is accelerating at a terrifying pace. Just as we are beginning to learn about the intricate connections between nature and human life and livelihoods, we also stand to lose the very species and interaction that underpin our livelihoods.
Working with pollinators has us to glimpse some of the most wonderfully intricate, complex and beautiful interactions on the planet. It also teaches us that nature does genuinely contribute to human welfare and survival.
While East Africa is blessed with some of the most diverse habitats on the planet, a huge challenge to conservation comes from a growing population and the need to produce more food. Pollinators, of course, make a connection between wild species and spaces and farming. As Africa now faces the prospect of feeding a growing population, and of meeting nutritional as well as basic food security, it is also a time of opportunity on the continent to truly use and understand the gift of biodiversity.
We need to do all this without sacrificing nature and natural areas. But the threats to pollinators don’t just come from habitat destruction. As Africa’s markets open up to the world and modern farming methods are promoted, for example the growing misuse of pesticides is a very real threat. And it can be addressed with proper information about how the chemicals affect these wild insects and what can be done to limit this. There is hope that we can actually do it right here in Africa – by both preventing the misuse and carefully manage the use of pesticides to protect not just pollinators, but soils, streams and human communities too.