Is pollination really an ecosystem service?

Ashy Mining Bee 2017-06-17 10.55.53

Yesterday on Twitter Prof. James Bullock from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology posted a slightly provocative tweet asking: “why pollination is so often called an ecosystem service. To my mind it is an ecosystem process which can, in some circumstances (e.g. crop pollination), support services such as food provision”.

I confess to being a bit surprised to see this; I’d always referred to pollination (at least by animals) as an ecosystem service, and it’s classified in that way in large status-and-trend reports such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and (more recently) the IPBES Assessment Report on Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production which describes animal pollination as “a regulating ecosystem service that underpins food production and its contribution to gene flows and restoration of ecosystems”.

The crux of James’s question is illustrated in this diagram from a paper by Prof. Georgina Mace and colleagues in 2012 entitled Biodiversity and ecosystem services: a multilayered relationship.  However note that even here, pollination straddles the line between ecosystem processes and services:

Mace ES image

My initial response to James’s tweet was that animal pollination is really a community process as the interaction, and its outcomes, between animal and crop plant is dependent mainly on species diversity and abundance.  Remember, an ecosystem is the sum of the biotic (i.e. community) plus abiotic (e.g. energy, water, mineral nutrients, etc.).  So as far as crop pollination is concerned, the abiotic components of an ecosystem don’t really come into it except in as much as they influence diversity and abundance of all life on Earth.  This is in contrast to more strictly ecosystem processes that link directly to the abiotic factors, such as primary productivity and soil formation, that then support ecosystem services.

It’s further complicated by the fact that many of the plants that perform ecosystem services, such as carbon capture by trees, are themselves dependent upon animal pollination to maintain their populations.  It’s the plants that are providing the ecosystem services but the animals are playing an important role in supporting that.

If you’d like to follow that discussion, which has some interesting contribution from a range of people, here’s the link:

 

But ultimately I feel that these are fairly arbitrary definitions across a continuum of causes and effects: we know what animal pollination of crops and wild plants is and why it’s important, so what we call it doesn’t really matter, does it?  Other things are much more concerning.  At the moment the UK is experiencing unprecedented weather: for the first time ever, earlier today, a temperature of in excess of 20 Centigrade has been recorded in winter.  It currently feels more like late April or early May than February.  I’m already seeing a lot of pollinator activity in the garden and beyond, and each day more plants come into flower, far earlier than expected.

The current and future effects of such changes in the climate are far more important than discussions of the semantics of processes versus services, however interesting that might be.

4 Comments

Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Climate change, Ecosystem services, IPBES, Pollination

4 responses to “Is pollination really an ecosystem service?

  1. As someone who has a good bit of training in science but is not practicing it as a profession, I wholeheartedly endorse your reasonable and nuanced position. “Ecology” is a human construct, an attempt to “chunk” a broad range of interactions and relationships into a shorthand term. We don’t even have a concrete definition of species, because nature keeps popping up things that straddle whatever line is drawn. It is humankind that draws lines in the sand. Biotic and abiotic relationships are real, the stories about them is all in our heads. If a particular line in the sand is useful at the moment, use it; if not, move it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. And it was over 21 degrees in London today! I haven’t seen any pollinating insects about, though. Maybe the high levels of pollution in the Leeds area have affected them.

    Liked by 1 person

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