Photo by David Goehring

Photo by David Goehring

The Problem: Climate Change Will Increase Extinction Risk of Other Pollinating Insects Such as Bees and Butterflies

By guest contributor Christine McCullum-Gomez, PhD, RD, LD

Nuts and produce such as almonds, pumpkins, squashes, blueberries, and apples are highly dependent on pollinators such as bees and butterflies.1 In contrast, crops such as corn and wheat do not need pollinators. Research conducted in 2015 estimated that wild bees are worth billions of dollars to farmers across the globe.2 The study adds to attempts to place a dollar figure on ecosystem services,*3 or more simply, put a price on the natural resources that feed us in order to discourage environmental plundering.2

Unfortunately, climate change experts warned that climate change will exacerbate the risk of extinction for pollinating insects that are already under threat from pesticides and habitat loss.4 According to the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),5 “Climate change, after land-use changes, can be regarded as the second most relevant factor responsible for the decline of pollinators.”4 With global data confirming that 2015 was the hottest year on record12, the impacts of climate change, such as floods and increasingly erratic local weather patterns, will threaten to wipe out more bee species, affecting our ability to produce food.4,5 

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that wild bee numbers diminished 23% in the continental United States between 2008 and 2013. This trend was driven by conversion of the wild bees’ natural habitat into farmland as commodity prices for corn, soy and wheat soared1 and farmers returned expired Conservation Reserve Program land to intensive production or eliminated hedgerows around existing fields. The 139 sampled counties represent 39% of the pollinator-dependent crop area of the United States and most likely will face inadequate pollination in the future. According to these authors, “[g]rowers of crops dependent on bees for pollination will need to depend more heavily on managed bees to supply pollination in the absence of abundant wild bee populations.”1 In 2007, a National Research Council committee on the status of pollinators “reported that conserving and improving habitats for wild bees is important for ensuring continued pollination services and food security.”1,6

photo by Ingrid Taylar

Photo by Ingrid Taylar

A Solution: Agroecology and Ecological Intensification

Agroecological, wildlife-friendly farming methods may be the best option to provide food for the world. They include crop rotation and multi-cropping, methods which have demonstrated increased profit margins7 and increased biodiversity, including pollinators.8 Hence, a new framework that orients research and policy toward the most productive science and policy is urgently needed.9

A 2015 study proposes a novel framework called “ecological intensification,” which emphasizes ecological approaches to agriculture including intercropping and use of non-synthetic fertilizers.10 Many experts interviewed for this study believed that a complete paradigm shift will require a tremendous amount of public support from the populations of different countries in addition to support from governments across the globe.10,11

Making a Difference: What You Can Do within Your Own Community to Support Pollinators

*Ecosystem services are defined as services that the earth’s ecosystems provide man, such as food and fiber, soil fertility, water purification, disease management, climate regulation, spiritual fulfillment, and aesthetic enjoyment. These services are extensive and diverse and affect the quality of our land, water, food, and health. In agroecosystems, biodiversity performs a myriad of essential ecosystem services beyond the production of food and fiber, including nutrient cycling into food crops; generation, renewal and preservation of soils; climate moderation (control); resilience to drought; pest control; and provision of habitat for beneficial insects, such pollinators, decomposers, and predators.3


  1. Koh I, Lonsdorf EV, Williams NM, et al. Modeling the status, trends, and impacts of wild bee abundance in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. U.S.A;2016:113;140-145.
  2. Kleijn D, Winfree R, Bartomeus I, et al. Delivery of crop pollination services is an insufficient argument for wild pollinator conservation. Nature Communications; 2015;6(7414): doi:10.1038/ncomms8414
  3. Underwood T, McCullum-Gomez, C, Harmon, A, et al. “Organic agriculture supports biodiversity and sustainable food production.” Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition;2011:6(4):398-423.
  4. Gosden E. “Bees and the crops they pollinate are at risk from climate change, IPCC report to warn.” Telegraph. 29 March 2015.
  5. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) -2014. Available at:
  6. Committee on the Status of Pollinators in North America, National Research Council [NRC] (2007) Status of Pollinators in North America (National Academy, Washington DC).
  7. Crowder DW and JP Reganold. Financial competitiveness of organic agriculture on a global scale. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A; 2015:112;7611-7616.
  8. Kennedy CM, Lonsdorf E, Neel MC, et al. A global quantitative synthesis of local and landscape effects on wild bee pollinators in agroecosystems. Letter;2013:16:584-599.
  9. Kremen C. Reframing the land-sparing/land-sharing debate for biodiversity conservation. N.Y. Acad. Sci. Article first published online July 27th 2015;doi: 10.1111/nyas.12845
  10. Petersen B and S. What is sustainable intensification? Views from experts. Land Use Policy;2015;1-10.
  11. Nink E. “Harvesting the research: ecological intensification can feed the world.” Food Tank. 1 Aug. 2015.
  12. Tollefson, Jeff. “2015 declared the hottest year on record.” Nature. 529,450 (doi:10.1038/nature.2016.19216.