Spatial and temporal variation in pollinator effectiveness: do unmanaged insects provide consistent pollination services to mass flowering crops?

Published online
15 Feb 2012
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Rader, R. & Howlett, B. G. & Cunningham, S. A. & Westcott, D. A. & Edwards, W.
Contact email(s)

Publication language
New Zealand


Recent declines in honeybee populations have focused attention on the potential for unmanaged insects to replace them as pollinators of food crops. The capacity of unmanaged pollinators to replace services currently provided by honeybees depends on the spatial and temporal variability of these services, but few quantitative assessments currently exist. We investigated spatial variation in pollinator importance by comparing pollinator efficiency and effectiveness in stigmatic pollen loads, stigmatic contact and visitation rate between honeybees and the seven most abundant unmanaged taxa in 2007. We assessed temporal variability in pollinator visitation using floral visits recorded three times a day over four consecutive years (2005-2008) in 43 'Pak Choi' Brassica rapa ssp. chinensis mass flowering fields in the Canterbury region of New Zealand. Further, we compared the aggregate effect of the unmanaged pollinator assemblage to the managed honeybee. Pak Choi was visited by many insect species that vary in abundance and effectiveness as pollen transfer agents. There was spatial variation in the four measures of pollinator importance. Pollen deposited on stigmas and flower visits per minute were not significantly different comparing the unmanaged assemblage to honeybees, although stigmatic contact and visitor abundance per number of open flowers were greater in honeybees. Unmanaged taxa were frequent visitors to the crop in all 4years. The pooled services provided by the unmanaged assemblage did not differ within a day and were equal to or greater than those provided by honeybees in 2 of the 4 years. Pollinator importance changed little irrespective of the spatial and temporal variations among taxa. Synthesis and applications. The results of this study suggest that some unmanaged insect taxa are capable of providing consistent pollination services over a 4-year period in a commercial mass flowering crop. As these taxa already contribute substantially to the pollination of food crops, they offer a safety net in the case of sudden collapse of managed honeybee hives. To optimize pollination services, we recommend pollinator-specific farm management practices that consider the needs of both managed and unmanaged pollinator taxa.

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