Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

This blog is part of the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog’s month-long series on Ecosystem Services.

By Barbara Gemmill-Herren and Hien Ngo

Bees are the world’s most important pollinators, bar none. Increasingly, the global community recognizes that their demise is critical – to both human livelihoods2,3 and the health of ecosystems1.  Honeybee declines are even featured on the cover story of Time Magazine in this year’s August 19th issue, a rare feat for an insect!


Photo Credit: Apis dorsata on mustard in Chitwan, Nepal Photo Credit: Dino Martins




But long before, the Convention on Biological Diversity took note of pollinator declines and established the International Pollinator Initiative in 2000.

The initiative recognizes, quite correctly, that honeybees are not the only pollinators in town, or on the farm. Indeed a recent publication by Garibaldi et al. 20132 highlighted the critical, irreplaceable role that wild bees play in agriculture. But, we still need more information on managed and wild bee pollination services, and how they can best be managed in synchrony to provide optimal pollination services.  We need to know more specific information on the extent and causes of pollinator declines, so that we know where we need to focus on reversing such trends.

The Science of Pollination Services in Agricultural Development

Pollination is one of 17 recognized ecosystem services. The production of over 75% of the world's most important crops and 35% of the food produced is dependent upon animal pollination1.   The services provided by pollination have significant economic value as well.  In the EU, insect pollination has an estimated value of 15 billion euros per year2.

Yet there have been mounting questions about how relevant pollination may be to agricultural development and food security. The vast majority of studies of pollination services to crops have been carried out in Europe and North America; and certainly the problems we know to impact pollinators most severely – a high dependence on agricultural chemicals and monocropped landscapes offering little diet diversity to pollinators – are typical features of industrialised, Northern agriculture.But this concept, of pollination deficits being primarily a concern of Northern, intensified agriculture is being put to a test.

When pollination was recognized as a global concern, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) was able to coordinate the development and implementation of a global project on pollination services. The project was developed in collaboration with seven developing countries: Brazil, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan and South Africa.

One of the priorities of this project – as identified by the participating countries – was to develop a protocol to identify and assess pollination deficits from a farmer’s perspective, led by FAO and the Institut National de la Agronomique in Avignon, France.

It has been applied in the seven participating countries, and the results so far suggest that management practices to ensure abundant pollinators can increase fruit sets in mango orchards in Ghana by 35%, improve the production of mustard seed in Nepal by 25%,and increase the canola oil content in rapeseed by 8% in Brazil.

How to assess ecosystem services?

In 2013, the new Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) came into force, the Biodiversity equivalent of the Nobel-Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. While IPBES is working out its working modalities, the Government of Norway has taken a look at the pollination deficit protocol developed by FAO, and suggested that a better understanding of how to apply it could give insight into the future work of IPBES.

Thus, the Norwegian Directorate of Nature Management has supported FAO to prepare trainers (Hien included), to train national research partners in five additional countries: Argentina, China, Colombia, Indonesia and Zimbabwe.

As IPBES is intended to be a science-knowledge-policy interface, indigenous and local communities were invited to give input through the Indigenous Partnership on Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty. The project seeks to provide input to IPBES on how indigenous and local communities might differently understand and assess pollinators and pollination services from a purely scientific approach; and also how they will apply the protocol to coffee farms run by indigenous communities in southern India.

Using a common, simple protocol that can be applied and adapted to a multitude of local conditions and systems could be one way for IPBES to approach the assessment of ecosystem services. But what can it add to the value of local assessments?

Meta-analyze that!

Comparing global trends from local assessments in a meta-analysis would be very helpful in gaining a global perspective on pollination deficits. Meta-analysis, could provide a powerful lens through which to analyze the conclusions and outcomes from FAO’s pollination deficit protocol. There is also certainly a need to bring the best research findings to the scrutiny of policy-makers.

Meta-analyzers from around the world held a “working workshop” this past July, in São Paulo, Brazil, where participants prepared an analytical framework and the datasets from eleven countries and eleven cropping systems (from raspberries, to rapeseed, clover, pumpkin and more) for a meta-analysis of pollination deficits.

Questions for Policy Makers

The questions that we believe the combined datasets may be able to address in some measure, are:

  1. How is crop yield related to the number of hives per ha and/or wild-pollinator assemblage (density, richness, evenness, etc.)?
  2. How is the wild-pollinator affected by landscape composition and configuration (e.g. distance to natural habitats) and/or management practices?
  3. How does pollinator and yield stability vary with landscape composition, configuration and management?
  4. How does pollinator density, diversity and the benefits of wild and managed pollinators interact with climatic conditions across years?
  5. How do pollinator assemblages vary across geographic regions and agronomic systems?

The results? Unfortunately, they aren’t that easy to churn out. It will take time, effort and a lot of statistical prowess to draw conclusions from such a large global dataset.

But we have committed to bringing the preliminary results to a meeting of principal researchers and policy makers from a number of the participating countries this September in Kenya. Our intention is to have researchers, policymakers and representatives of indigenous people sit down together and think about possible policy responses to the trends revealed from these questions.

It is too simple to only say “so many hives are needed per hectare for good production”. The number of people keeping hives around the world is in decline; wild bees are often better pollinators than managed bees; pesticides and loss of natural habitat heavily impacts the populations of bees.  Once we know the science, it is in the hands of policymakers and the general public to commit to goal-oriented solutions.


For more information, please

This FAO project was funded by the United National Environment Programme, Global Environment Facility and the Norwegian Directorate for Nature Management.


1. Klein AM, Vaissiere BE, Cane JH, Steffan-Dewenter I, Cunningham SA, et al. (2007) Importance of pollinators in changing landscapes for world crops. P R Soc B 274: 303–313.

2. Gallai N, Salles JM, Settele J, Vaissiere BE (2009) Economic valuation of the vulnerability of world agriculture confronted with pollinator decline. Ecol Econ 68: 810–821

3. Eilers EJ, Kremen C, Smith Greenleaf S, Garber AK, Klein A-M (2011) Contribution of Pollinator-Mediated Crops to Nutrients in the Human Food Supply. PLoS ONE 6(6): e21363. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0021363

The results from applying the deficit protocol in many sites around the world will be published soon in a special issue of the Journal of Pollination Ecology.

Meta-analyzers at the Sao Paolo conference included: Antonio Saraiva at the University of Sao Paulo and the research center on biodiversity and computing (BioComp); Lucas Garibaldi at the Universidad Nacional de Rio Negro and Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Cientificas y Tecnicas in Argentina, lead author of the recent Science meta-analysis article on the importance of wild pollinators for crop pollination, and Luisa Carvalheiro, of University of Leeds and Naturalis in the Netherlands. 


About the Authors:

Barbara Gemmill-Herren is a Programme Specialist and Focal Point for the International Pollinator Initiative at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). She is also a member of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystem's (WLE) Ecosystem Services and Resilience Advisory Group.

Hien Ngo is a PhD student at York University (Toronto, Canada) and is a consultant to FAO on pollination matters.

For updates follow us on @WLE_CGIAR and on Facebook.


Thanks for the post. Bees actually do a lot more for our environment than we give them credit for. Thanks again.

Great headline. Bees are such a huge importance to our ecosystems and with the decline in population it has a domino effect on our agriculture development and our farmers. Hopefully in the near future we will find out why they are declining and find ways to keep the population healthy. Thanks for the great informative read.


I would thank the authors of this article for two things. Firstly to point out the role of wild bees. Honey bees received a lot of attention recently due to phenomena like CCD. I would not minimize the role of honey bees, but it is perhaps overlooked and the study of Garibaldi et al 2013 in Science gives some hints in this direction. The second point is the methodological aspect advertising the meta-analysis. I would like to advertise for some colleagues that propose a suitable framework for such kind of analysis (it is really helpful)
Thanks for reading

Thank you everyone for the great feedback on this blog post. We too feel that it is important to look at both the role of managed honey bees and wild bees in agricultural systems - and the Pollinator Deficit Protocol takes both of these types of bees into account during the sampling method. If you would like to contact Barbara for more information regarding colleagues or analysis etc., her email is listed on the International Pollinators Initiative website listed above. Thanks for reading!


Thanks for the post. Keystone is glad to be partnering on this project in south India and I think the more we explore this across farming systems in the country, particularly arid regions, the more answers we may find about native bees and their status.

For some years I have been tracking this topic, not as a bee specialist, rather as a Senior Food Security Adviser. I had the fortune to commission a "state of the situation" paper from an apiculture leader for Washington State. The result is a snapshot, one state - one analysis, well worth the 5 page read.

The Status and Future of Washington Apiculture (Beekeeping)
James C Bach, WSDA State Apiarist, retired

@Jennifer Harte - Thank you for forwarding the document. I have read it and it is a great snapshot - more focused on honey bee pollination and pollination services (economics) - but useful nonetheless. Recently at the Apimondia 2013 meetings in Kiev, Ukraine many of these issues came up - pathogens, diseases, and fruit pollination. Can you tell me which sources were accessed to write this report? There are no references. Again, thank you for bringing this to our attention.

Bees at have greimportance to our ecosystems and with the reduction in population it has a negative effect on our agriculture development and framer community. Great words about bees to read.

Thanks for the lovely comment Muhammad. Your contribution and participation s important for the success of the project.


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