Beetles, butterflies and bees, oh my! Pollinators face extinction, study says

Scientists warn that declining populations of pollinators will affect future food supply.

Story highlights

  • Nearly 90% of all wild flowering plants depend on animal pollination to some extent
  • 16.5% of vertebrate pollinators threatened with extinction globally
  • 75% of the world's food crops depend on pollination by insects and other animals

(CNN)Bees, birds, butterflies and beetles are among a growing list of pollinator species in jeopardy of global extinction, a United Nations study warns, a trend that could threaten the world's food supply.

Beyond the birds and the bees, tens of thousands of species of pollinators that play a significant role in the world's food production and contribute to billions of dollars in food yield are at risk, according to a report released by the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
    About three-fourths of the world's food crops depend on pollination by insects and other animals, the report cites. Some of these crops include food items found on tables around the globe -- apples, chocolate, carrots and coffee, just to name a few.
    "Pollinators are important contributors to world food production and nutritional security," Vera Lucia Imperatriz-Fonseca, co-chair of the assessment and senior professor at the University of São Paulo, said in a statement. "Their health is directly linked to our own well-being."
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    That includes our financial well-being: An estimated $235 to $577 billion in global crops could be affected annually because, the study says, nearly 16% of the current global vertebrate pollinators are headed toward extinction.
    Wild flowering plants are most at risk. Researchers say that nearly 90% of them depend on animal pollination to some extent.

    Wild pollinators on the decline

    Several factors could be causing the species decline, the study's authors said.
    "Wild pollinators in certain regions, especially bees and butterflies, are being threatened by a variety of factors," said Sir Robert Watson, vice-chair of the IPBES.
    Declines in wild pollinators have been noted in northwestern Europe and North America, the study says, as well as in other parts of the world.
    "Their decline is primarily due to changes in land use, intensive agricultural practices and pesticide use, alien invasive species, diseases and pests, and climate change," Watson added.
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    It's not all doom and gloom

    The unprecedented U.N.-sponsored assessment of pollinators took two years to complete, with a team of 77 experts from around the world poring over 3,000 scientific papers to compile the report. It was presented Friday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
    But it's not all gloom and doom.
    "The good news is that a number of steps can be taken to reduce the risks to pollinators, including practices based on indigenous and local knowledge," said Zakri Abdul Hamid, elected Founding Chair of IPBES, in the statement.
    The study included information on those practices and information from 60 locations across the globe.
    Among those steps are using sustainable agriculture, diversifying crops and eco-friendly food production, actions that may ensure that the story of the birds and the bees will be told for many generations to come.