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Pollinators: - a conservation priority

by Connal Eardley

Agricultural Research Council, Plant Protection Research Institute, Private Bag X134, Pretoria, 0001, South Africa.

From  leopards, to our indigenous fish, Africa's natural biodiversity is under threat.  Just for a moment shift your focus from the large to the small. Think about the insects which pollinate plants. Have you ever paused to think about the food you are eating?  According to a popular slogan,  "We can thank a pollinator for one out of every three bites of food".  Needles to say, pollinators are vital in sustaining both natural diversity and variety in our diets. Read why across Africa and internationally the conservation of pollinators is receiving serious attention. 


Green plants are the primary food source for the earth's living biota and cross-pollination is fundamental to sexual reproduction in plants and its associated adaptive advantages for plants. Self-pollination and vegetative reproduction are seldom the primary form of plant reproduction and of little evolutionary significance. Certain abundant plant species, such as savannah grasses, are wind pollinated. Although these plants outnumber animal-pollinated plants, Africa's floral diversity depends on pollinators. 

Similarly, our staple foods are wind pollinated but variation in our diet depends on pollinators. Reduction in the abundance of pollinators or their possible disappearance has concerned many people, and the conservation of pollinators has consequently become an integral part of many biodiversity conservation efforts.

The five focal areas in the conservation of pollinator biodiversity are:
· Opportunities and requirements to monitor pollinator decline and its impact on pollination services.
· Impact of the lack of relevant taxonomic information on pollinators.
· Procedures to estimate and monitor the economic impact of the decline of pollinator services.
· Conservation and restoration efforts required to sustain  pollinator diversity in agro- and natural eco-systems.
· Technical implications and scale of the movement of pollinators in international trade.

Because expertise in Africa is one of the limiting factors in conservation efforts, African countries need to take a collective approach to the conservation of pollinators.  All of the above thematic issues need to be addressed on a continental scale. Most regions of the world are developing regional pollinator networks. The African Pollinator Initiative was the first regional co-ordinating mechanism designed for this purpose.  

Participants from Africa have shown considerable interest in the conservation of pollinators. To date 46 African scientists have responded to FAO's pollinator programme.  However, in the light of this major drive to conserve pollinators, Africa has scant baseline information on the relative abundance of pollinators and the pollination processes, which is essential to the success of the project. 

The need for the conservation of pollinators is receiving international attention, but in Africa it will be the activities of local communities that will ultimately determine the fate of pollinators. They will also be the recipients who reap the benefits of pollinator conservation efforts. Communities from different backgrounds must co-ordinate their activities in a combined campaign.

The gathering of valuable information thus need not rest with scientists alone. Active participation by the community at large; gardeners, municipal parks, nature reserves, botanical gardens, societies, schools and tertiary training institutions can make a vital contribution.

Here is an example how: Pollinators, particularly bees, are sensitive to environmental degradation, and changes in their abundance and diversity will influence the abundance and diversity of the prevailing plant species. This provides bees with the potential to be keystone indicator species. Certain groups of bees can be easily monitored, making the use of bees as indicators a practical option. Seasonal and long-term change in pollinator diversity and abundance, compared with similar short-term and long-term change in the prevailing vegetation, can provide informative hands-on community projects, and simultaneously provide valuable information on population dynamics.

Persons interested in the conservation of pollinators should contact Connal Eardley


Further information and web-sites: 

Considerable progress is being made towards the establishment of an international agreement for the conservation of pollinators. The first major international event took place in 1996 when the Third Conference of the Parties (COP3) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) decided that pollinators should be a priority group for case studies in the ‘Conservation and Sustainable Use of Agricultural Biodiversity’ (Decision III.11, This was followed by the Sao Paulo Declaration on Pollinators (, that proposed the concept of a CBD International Pollinator Initiative (IPI). In January 1999, at the First conference of the Systematics Society of Southern Africa, an African Pollinator Initiative was launched by C.D. Eardley. In May 2000 COP5 decided to institute an IPI as a cross-cutting issue and invited the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) to facilitate and co-ordinate the initiative, and prepare a proposal for a plan of action ( FAO has been interested in pollination as an essential ecosystem service and is developing its own programme in this regard, and initiated an electronic pollination journal called ‘PollenBytes’ ($ResFull?ID=M180, also accessible through, ‘Resources’, ‘HyperMemes’, Category (scroll down to ‘PollenBytes’), ‘Find HyperMeme’ and then use navigation menus). The expected result will be a dovetailing of these initiatives.

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