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Cottoning on to the importance of pollinators - Conservation

Cottoning on to the importance of pollinators

Over the years, researchers have documented how the presence of pollinators—whose population are in decline—can increase the yields of dozens of food crops. A recent paper adds another important global crop to the list: cotton, the most valuable non-food crop on the planet.

The paper shows that farms with more natural land cover nearby have more pollinators in their fields. It also shows that having more pollinators in the fields enables plants to produce more cotton. This is good news, considering that global demand for cotton is expected to rise in the coming decades.

The researchers looked at 12 study sites in three cotton-growing areas of southern Texas. First, they mapped land cover and cataloged the species of pollinators and their abundance at each experimental site. Their analysis revealed that the presence of natural areas was the strongest predictor of both abundance and richness of pollinators in nearby cotton fields.

Researchers then measured cotton yield at each site to determine the effects of pollinator presence. They placed organza bags on some plants to block pollinator access. With other plants, they hand pollinated the plants to mimic a maximum pollination scenario. Six weeks later they weighed cotton and seeds—known as the boll—of the 50 experiment plants at each site.

They found that plants receiving the enhanced pollination produced cotton bolls that were on average 18 percent heavier than the normally pollinated plants. At sites with more abundant and diverse pollinators, the naturally pollinated plants produced bolls closer in size to the maximally pollinated plants. At sites with less natural land cover nearby, the naturally pollinated plants produced bolls closer in size to the bagged plants that received no pollination.

The researchers say that the 18 percent increase adds $108 of earnings per hectare. That means supporting biodiversity and conserving natural land cover could put over $1 million more in the pockets of farmers across the region each year, the authors say. And the rest of us could enjoy a cotton that is softer on our conscience. —Catherine Elton | 19 August 2016

Source: Cusser S, Neff JL, and Jha S. Natural land cover drives pollinator abundance and richness, leading to reductions in pollen limitation in cotton agroecosystem. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. 2016.

Header image: Visit Mississippi/Flickr.com

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