Insect pollinators not only fill our environment with life, colour and beauty, these fascinating little creatures are also among the most important animals on earth. But why are pollinators so important?
To understand this, we need to consider the relationship between pollinators and flowering plants, a ‘mutualistic’ relationship that both plants and pollinators benefit from.
Pollinators such as bees, butterflies, moths, flies and beetles visit flowers in order to consume or collect nectar, pollen and/or other resources such as oils, fragrances and resins. As pollinators move from flower to flower they unintentionally transfer pollen grains. This process allows plants to produce fruit, seeds, and the next generation of plants.
Insect pollinators are essential to the reproductive cycles of 88% of the worlds flowering plants. These plants form earth’s terrestrial habitats and ecosystems, providing food, shelter and resources for an incredible diversity of other species. Pollination therefore plays a crucial role in supporting wider terrestrial biodiversity, ecosystem functioning and the delivery of ecosystems services.
A critically important ecosystem service provided by pollinators that is directly linked to human wellbeing around the world is crop pollination. Three quarters of all the different types of crops that humans grow around the world benefit from animal pollination, with insects providing the vast majority of this service. These crops constitute the most interesting, delicious and nutritious elements of our diets, including most fruits, seeds and nuts, as well as several high-value commodity crops such as coffee, cocoa and oilseed rape. In terms of volume, we have pollinators to thank for one in every three mouthfuls of food that we eat.
While it is recognised that current standard economic indicators, such as Gross Domestic Product, inadequately capture the range of ecosystem services provided by pollinators, the market value of the global crop pollination service that they provide has recently been estimated as being worth US$235-577 billion annually. In the UK alone, insects pollinate £690 million worth of crops each year.