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Pollination is greatly reduced by air pollution.
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Pollination is greatly reduced by air pollution.

Credit: CC0 Public domain

Research has shown that common air pollutants in urban and rural areas may reduce the ability of insects to pollinate crops and wildflowers.

Researchers from the University of Reading, UK Center for Ecology & Hydrology and the University of Birmingham discovered that pollinators were significantly less numerous, there were up-to 90% fewer flower visits, and overall pollination was reduced by up to 31% when common ground-level pollutants such as diesel exhaust pollutants and ozone were present.

The study was published in the journal. Environmental PollutionThe first to notice a negative effect of common air pollutants on pollination in nature is, The theory is that pollutants react with the flowers’ scents, making it harder to find them.

Dr. Robbie Girling from the University of Reading was Associate Professor in Agroecology and led the project. “We knew that diesel exhaust can have adverse effects on insect pollinators from our previous lab research, but the impacts that we found in the field were far more dramatic than what we had anticipated.”

Dr. James Ryalls is a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellow from the University of Reading who conducted the study. He said: “The findings concern because these pollutants are often found in the air many of our breathe every day. We know that these pollutants can be harmful to our health. However, the significant declines in pollinator activity and numbers shows that there are clear implications for natural ecosystems.

Members of the Reading team have previously shown that diesel fumes alter floral odors in laboratory studies. This research suggested that polluting insects could be affected by pollution, making it more difficult for them to find their foodpollen or nectar.

It is not known how this phenomenon affects nature, where pollinators are insects that pollinate important food crops or native wildflowers. This new study aimed at gathering evidence to determine how air pollution affects different species of pollinating insects.

The Natural Environment Research Council funded the study. It used a fumigation facility specifically built to regulate levels (NO) of nitrogen oxides.x) present in diesel exhaust fumesand ozone in an open field environment. They then studied the effects of these pollutants over the two summer field seasons.

They used pollution levels that were below the maximum acceptable levels. This is equivalent to 40-50% of the limits currently set by US law as safe and healthy for the environment.

This is far less than the much higher levels of pollution that are caused by violations of regulations around the globe. A 2019 analysis outside London showed that illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide were detected in large areas of north England, including Cheshire, Gateshead, and south England. This includes Wiltshire, Chichester, and rural areas like the New Forest.

The pollinators visited plants in polluted atmospheres 62-70% less often, according to observations. This reduction was evident in seven pollinator group, including bees and hoverflies as well as butterflies and moths. These insects also visited less flowers from 83-90%, which in turn led to a 14-31% drop in pollination. This was based on seed yield, among other factors.

These findings could have wide-ranging implications as insect pollination is worth hundreds of billions of dollars each year. It supports approximately 8% of the global agricultural food production value and 70% of all crop varieties, including apples, strawberries, cocoa, and other fruits, rely on its support.

This research is part of ongoing research at the University of Reading into the effects of polluting air on insect health and how they interact with the environment.

Dr. Christian Pfrang is a Reader in Atmospheric Science from the University of Birmingham. He was a coauthor of the study.

The buzz about canola fields pollinators

More information:
James M.W. Ryalls et al, Anthropogenic air pollutants reduce insect-mediated pollination services, Environmental Pollution (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.envpol.2022.118847

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University of Reading

Pollination is significantly reduced by air pollution. This is due to the confusion of butterflies and bees (2022; January 20).
Retrieved 20 January 2022

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