Contribution of insect pollinators to crop yield and quality varies with agricultural intensification

PeerJ. 2014 Mar 27:2:e328. doi: 10.7717/peerj.328. eCollection 2014.


Background. Up to 75% of crop species benefit at least to some degree from animal pollination for fruit or seed set and yield. However, basic information on the level of pollinator dependence and pollinator contribution to yield is lacking for many crops. Even less is known about how insect pollination affects crop quality. Given that habitat loss and agricultural intensification are known to decrease pollinator richness and abundance, there is a need to assess the consequences for different components of crop production. Methods. We used pollination exclusion on flowers or inflorescences on a whole plant basis to assess the contribution of insect pollination to crop yield and quality in four flowering crops (spring oilseed rape, field bean, strawberry, and buckwheat) located in four regions of Europe. For each crop, we recorded abundance and species richness of flower visiting insects in ten fields located along a gradient from simple to heterogeneous landscapes. Results. Insect pollination enhanced average crop yield between 18 and 71% depending on the crop. Yield quality was also enhanced in most crops. For instance, oilseed rape had higher oil and lower chlorophyll contents when adequately pollinated, the proportion of empty seeds decreased in buckwheat, and strawberries' commercial grade improved; however, we did not find higher nitrogen content in open pollinated field beans. Complex landscapes had a higher overall species richness of wild pollinators across crops, but visitation rates were only higher in complex landscapes for some crops. On the contrary, the overall yield was consistently enhanced by higher visitation rates, but not by higher pollinator richness. Discussion. For the four crops in this study, there is clear benefit delivered by pollinators on yield quantity and/or quality, but it is not maximized under current agricultural intensification. Honeybees, the most abundant pollinator, might partially compensate the loss of wild pollinators in some areas, but our results suggest the need of landscape-scale actions to enhance wild pollinator populations.

Keywords: Agroecosystems; Biodiversity; Ecosystem services; Honeybees; Pollination; Wild bees.

Grants and funding

This work was funded by the European Union to the projects “ALARM—Assessing large-scale environmental risks for biodiversity with tested methods” (2003-506675), and “STEP—Status and trends of European pollinators” (244090) in the 6th and 7th Framework Programme, respectively, and by the Swedish research council FORMAS. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.