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The Economy of Pollinators

Updated: Oct 6, 2020

COVID-19 has revealed that essential workers are integral in underpinning our economy.


Hospital cleaners, delivery drivers, checkout operators in supermarkets – COVID-19 has made the invisible visible. While many have been setting up a home office and juggling home schooling, essential workers have continued to show up delivering services on the frontline. The past year has shone a light on the real drivers of our economy, giving us a chance to reflect, ask questions and to see our world differently.


As a beekeeper I connect with essential workers every day.


Watching bees as they fly into the hive loaded up with nectar and pollen is a direct reminder the role pollinators play as essential workers in our economy. Just like hospital cleaners, pollinators remain invisible and yet without them we would lose food security and our economy would collapse. It was Napoleon who said, ‘an army marches on its stomach’. What he did not say is it is pollinators that feed those stomachs.

Pollinators are a foundation species and yet these essential workers go about largely unseen in our gardens, across farms, along roadsides and in public green spaces. Pollinators consist of many vertebrate and thousands of invertebrate species including bees, wasps, ants, butterflies, moths, bats, possums, birds, antechinus….and the list goes on.


Pollinators are ubiquitous. From the smallest native bee to the wattle bird squawking outside your bedroom window – these essential workers are facing the challenges of modern life and they are not winning. Habitat destruction, pesticides, disease, and industrial farming practices over the decades are all taking their toll on what I call the economy of pollinators – invisible, essential workers driving the broader economy and underpinning our existence.


Overseas research has shown a significant drop in insect numbers, with scientists estimating monarch butterfly numbers in North America have decreased 90% over the past 20 years. In a recent New York Times article, citizen scientists in Denmark exposed the loss of insect numbers in the countryside. It is estimated that scientists have only researched 20% of the world’s insect species – most remain unknown to us. While entomologists have been busy studying individual species, insect numbers overall have been declining and scientists are now lamenting the lack of any historical data to indicate the size of this loss. Additional research has shown the important networks pollinators form acting as connectors or hubs in the environment. If these structurally important connectors and hubs are lost, whole ecosystems collapse.


Research in Australia is limited, we simply do not know everything that pollinators do. However, we can measure the value of the economy of pollinators to the broader economy. It is estimated that bees alone provide $6 billion per year in pollination services across Australia. The Tasmanian Beekeeping Survey 2019 report states that Tasmanian beekeepers deliver essential pollination services to the agricultural sector and it is estimated that approximately 85% of around $164 million of Tasmania’s pollination-dependent crops would be at risk without pollination services. In addition, the July 2019 Bee Industry Future Report in Tasmania noted there are headwinds facing the beekeeping industries.


One of the key points emerging from the consultation was a potential shortage of pollination resource in the State. This is a serious issue for agriculture. In Tasmania this directly impacts the AgriVision target of an agricultural sector worth $10 billion per annum at the farm gate by 2050. In other States and Territories, similar targets have been set – all relying on the essential work of pollinators to get them there.


In 2020 we are not doing enough to protect the economy of pollinators.


Last year it was revealed a beekeeper in Griffith NSW lost hundreds of beehives to fipronil poisoning, possibly linked to cotton farms. And then earlier this year a beekeeper in Northern Tasmania suffered mass bee deaths – Bio Security investigated and found it was fipronil poisoning, but the source of the poisoning was not discovered. These are the pollinator deaths we know about only because they are managed by beekeepers – poisons such as fipronil kill indiscriminately with thousands of other invertebrate species potentially impacted. While these are treated as standalone events and are not regarded as systemic failings, distrust between beekeepers and farmers will remain, making it difficult to guarantee pollination services into the future and reaching the AgriVision target. As one commercial beekeeper said to me recently, ‘I won’t take my hives out for pollination anymore because the farmers cannot guarantee their safety.’


Protecting the economy of pollinators must include children.

Much of the future proofing work undertaken by Governments and land managers targets adults. While we set visions for the future, children need to be included in this journey as they will be the ones tasked to make these visions real. Meeting children as current and future land managers is integral in any agricultural and land management modelling. Children have the capacity to see, connect and change the future, because they are the future.


You can help too. Become a pollinator protector. It’s easier than you think, start making decisions that support pollinators where you are, as you are– planting a pollinator friendly garden, choosing not to use chemicals, creating pollinator habitat, buying local honey, attending pollinator workshops, undertaking research, lobbying local councils, state and federal MPs on pollinator protect activities. However small or big your contribution, it will count.


2020 has given us a new appreciation for essential workers. We have an opportunity to keep making visible the invisible, to see what underpins and drives an economy and to become protectors of the future. Without the economy of pollinators, the broader economic system collapses. My hope is that we are compelled to do what we can where we are with what we have. It all starts and ends with us.

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