If you think the Earth is spherical – and it is – you might as well buy that there are cyclical processes on this planet, endless circular ways all life forms are interconnected, which we are still trying to understand on a global scale.
Heavy rainfall in California, for example, affects the flow of nutrients across the landscape, affecting the abundance and functioning of marine and terrestrial life, which may alter fisheries and crop production, which may affect food diversity and availability nationwide, affecting the health of human beings, which go back to the beginning to influence how well we work together to protect access to the nutrients we need to live.
Deep Circular Breath There is a lot to take in.
Even the climate fluctuates over time in natural cycles, such as volcanic activity, abnormal cycles, and primarily the burning of fossil fuels by humans to travel around the surface of this realm in which we live. (We can control one of these processes if we work together, but that’s not the point right now.)
Referring to one of the most widely known connections to other life forms on the planet — that many of the plants we eat require pollination by animals — a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein reads like this: “If bees disappeared, humans would have only four years to live.” .”
Whether he really said it may never be known. We hope it won’t be tested if this is true, although mounting evidence suggests we’re doing our best: human activity is associated with a 76% decline in flying insect biomass over recent decades, and 40% of insect species are projected to face extinction in coming years
With everything we now know about cycles, we might expect a decline in pollinators to lead to a decrease in food availability, thus reducing human health and life expectancy. Scientists have connected those individual dots before. But a new study has brought the web of facts back full circle on a global scale.
The latest buzz about wellness
The oft-heard acronym for healthy living is to make sure you get enough of the essential nutrients found in fresh foods, the lack of which can cause not only scurvy, the classic plague of sailors too long at sea, but also nutrition. Modern-related diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and several types of cancer.
Heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes are four of the top eight leading causes of death in the United States, according to the US Centers for Disease Control, suggesting that our technological species could be better at feeding ourselves simply real food. But having these foods in stock depends on more than finding time to buy groceries. The global agricultural economy is a big machine with many gears that spin and stick based on factors such as climate change, drought, chemical pollution, transportation, labor practices, and lack of pollinators.
In a paper published last month in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, the scientists combined several of these cogs into one analysis and concluded that a lack of wild pollinators making rounds on fruit, vegetable and nut crops has resulted in limited regional availability of nutritious foods and premature deaths of between 86,000 and 691,000. person globally. Many of these are likely to be from poorer populations in rich countries, where lower availability of healthy foods imported from far away makes fresh foods less expensive.
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“Clinicians and public health professionals around the world are beginning to realize that our hands are tied,” said Samuel Myers, a research scientist focused on planetary health at Harvard University’s Center for the Environment and senior author of the paper. “We are doing our jobs effectively, protecting future human health, while the life support systems we all depend on are crumbling under the weight of our environmental footprint.”
Scientists searched further to estimate that between 37,000 and 305,000 people die unnaturally prematurely from a lack of fruit consumption specifically, between 21,000 and 151,000 people suffer from fatal health illnesses related to insufficient access to nuts and that between 31,000 and 251,000 people they die. Every year of not eating enough vegetables. (Feel free to share this dish with the kids at dinner tonight.)
If these sound like great scalar ranges, they are. Their stated “confidence interval,” as their estimated spread of deaths is called, is an expected measure of the scientific uncertainty that results from trying to model something as complex, ill-considered, and interconnected as the effect of pollinators on our health.
Scientific modeling happens in cycle, too.
The researchers started with crop yield estimates, based on data from a global network of farms, said Matthew Smith, a Harvard environmental health scientist who was the first author on the study. Then they factored in the gap between what is currently being grown and the number of fruits, vegetables, and nuts that could have been produced if enough pollinators had been on hand. Their answer to this question was 25%, which means that a quarter of the potential fruit, vegetables and nuts are not realized due to insufficient pollination.
Then, Smith said, they “filled that gap” by calculating how different each country’s food production would be in a pollinator-rich world.
“And that’s when the economic trading model kicks in,” Smith said. “If every country is producing an extra bit of some food, how is the world going to respond to that change in production? They might export a lot of that food or you might have enough consumers domestically that people in the country eat it. There are all these global economic forces that are You control who will eat this food.”
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Finally, the scientists used data on the regional incidence of specific diseases to look at how changes in consumption of fruits, vegetables, and nuts translated into different health outcomes.
Then they went back to the beginning and tweaked the model a few more times, adjusting the statistical knobs based on their understanding of these complex systems.
What put them at ease about the results from several layers of modeling, Myers said, was that all the estimates they were correlating held well on their own, and the pollinator gap was accounted for at 25% from empirical observations originating from a network of about 300 farms on four continents.
“Insects and other animals (such as pollinators) are responsible for the majority of calories in our diet, and an even greater number of nutrients,” he said. “Nobody has been able to connect the dots between dwindling pollinator populations and the human health consequences. And that’s the kind of work I love to do: piecing together understanding across disciplines to come to terms with the importance of natural order for health and well-being.”
Sew in feeding pollinators
What the Harvard study could not fit into modeling pollinators and nutrition is the nutritional health of the bees themselves.
“Bees need certain nutrients at different times, and what they decide to forage on any given day depends on what they think they need,” said Nick Ivers, an integrative biology doctoral student at the University of Texas, Austin. “There are the essential fats, proteins and carbohydrates that they need to survive.”
Ivers published a paper this week in the journal Science of the Total Environment sharing his findings on how bumblebee susceptibility to parasites relates to landscape features such as mountains and oceans interrupting foraging trips and the spread of genetic variation.
“Genetics and susceptibility to parasites are really closely linked,” he said. “The greater the genetic diversity of an individual or population, the fewer parasites you will find in that group overall.”
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A landscape such as a city in which it is difficult for a bee to navigate to find the right kind of floral resource places more physiological stress on the foraging bee. As with malnourished humans, this limitation makes the bees’ immune systems less able to fight off pathogens they may encounter while visiting flowers previously touched by infected bees.
But there is a natural antidote, if only bees had access to it.
In 2018, another group of researchers found that sunflower pollen appears to have medicinal value for bees. The researchers concluded that bumblebees and honeybees with sufficient access to cleaned sunflower pollen were able to control their pathogen loads, primarily by ejecting them.
The relationship between how a bee’s struggle with parasites and pathogens affects its ability to pollinate is not well understood, Evers said. But from this collection of recent studies, it is clear that landscapes that do not support feeding bees can turn into a planet-wide system of malnourished humans.
“We know that pathogens can alter the foraging behavior of bees and this can lead to some effects on the food available for us to eat,” he said. “I think the biggest problem is that we have massive agro-ecosystems with very little natural cover in the environment, so bees are forced to only nest and only forage in these crops that aren’t always suitable for them and won’t provide the overall nutrition they need to fight off threats, maintain their metabolism and reproduce.”
One ray of hope peeking through the rain clouds battering the West Coast lately is that parasites can wash away the flowers with a good storm. But as the climate warms and record-breaking droughts worsen, it may become more difficult for bees to avoid pathogens.
“Precipitation is definitely going to change with climate change and we’re going to see more and more variation in intrusion as a result,” Evers said.
And for the majority of bee species—various in their size, shape, colors, and pollination behaviors—that spend the winter developing from eggs to adults in underground nests, flooding presents an entirely new challenge.
“Flowers are definitely being washed out in California right now, so transmission is probably low,” Evers said. “I’m more concerned about the 80% of the ground-dwelling bee species that are basically being washed out. With the amount of rain we’re getting, I would expect Seeing fewer bees in the spring.”
Fortunately, while California may not have great options for using the flood problem to solve the drought problem, those who understand nature as operating in a series of interconnected cycles can begin to solve the problems of bee feeding and parasites to sustain the agricultural cycle that it provides. Fruits, vegetables and nuts.
To help bees meet their food demands so they can meet your needs, Smith suggests creating a habitat for pollinators by planting flowers in empty spaces that won’t be tilled, where bees can feed and live undisturbed. Preserving some of the wild landscape helps promote healthy bee populations in the surrounding areas. Reducing the use of pesticides, especially neonicotinoids that are known to kill and confuse, will keep bees safe. Planning a variety of flowers so that something is blooming nearby helps bees survive gaps in flower availability.
Evers noted that sunflowers are always a good choice.
Joanne Meiners is the climate news and storytelling reporter for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Before becoming a journalist, she completed a PhD in ecology. Continued Joan on Twitter at @tweet Or email her at email@example.com.
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