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Birds and bees team up to increase coffee plant yields

Pollinators are an important component in most agriculture, but new research demonstrates how the combined effect of birds and bees on coffee bean production far outweighs their individual contributions.

(CN) — Coffee bean farmers produce 25% greater yields on their crops thanks to birds’ and bees’ efforts in helping to pollinate the beloved plants, according to a study published Monday. That amounts to an additional $1,066 per hectare in the $24 billion per year coffee bean industry.

These findings show that investing in habitat enhancements to support native biodiversity and attract these valuable pollinators can provide a remarkable return for coffee bean farmers, which in turn helps to support rural livelihoods around the globe. Small farmers supply nearly 70% of the global coffee bean production and natural pollinators play a key role in meeting that demand. Regions that are ideal for coffee bean production also closely overlap with those most at need of biodiversity conservation.

The study by researchers from the University of Vermont and the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Costa Rica was published Monday in the journal PNAS. The authors’ findings demonstrate the need to further study correlations between biodiversity and ecosystem services and their combined impact on farmers’ livelihoods.

“In our study we demonstrated that the interaction of birds and bees increased coffee productivity. The combined effects of birds (i.e., pest control services provided by residents and Neotropical migrants) and bees (i.e., pollination services provided by native and nonnative bees) were greater than their individual effects (i.e., better together than alone),” lead author Dr. Alejandra Martínez-Salinas of the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center said in an email. “If we do not account for these interactions, it is likely that we will be underestimating the benefits provided by nature. It is important to consider these interactions to correctly account for biodiversity benefits and to promote biodiversity conservation in agricultural lands.”

Previous evaluations of individual ecological services are likely to underestimate the biodiversity benefits derived from pollinators such as birds and bees when viewed in isolation, according to the authors. They say those benefits become far more pronounced when the synergies among them are viewed as a whole. Around the world, more than 87% of flowering plants, including 75% of major crops, depend on animal pollinators to varying degrees, particularly tropical plants.

Researchers from Latin America and the U.S. studied coffee bean plants on 30 individual farms, excluding birds and bees by using nets and nylon bags to keep them separate from the plants. They tested the plants’ yields with bird activity alone, bee activity alone, no bird or bee activity whatsoever and a final test of the natural environment without restricting access to any pollinators.

The researchers then calculated the fruit set, average fruit weight, fruit weight CV (a measure of fruit weight uniformity – an important metric for marketing and roasting purposes). They also analyzed the proportion of coffee beans spoiled by the coffee berry borer, one of the most destructive pests in the coffee bean cultivation industry, but also a delicacy among the bird population. They found the combined benefits of bird and bee pollinators were far greater than their individual contributions alone.

“We were expecting bees to increase fruit set and birds to lower coffee berry borer infestation according to previous studies in coffee plantations,” Dr. Adina Chain-Guadarrama of the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center said in an email. “We, however, were excited to find out that our experiment, with a unique design where we excluded bees and birds at the branch level, show a positive interaction (synergy) between pollination and pest control, and how at fine scales the presence of one organism can shape the benefits another one provides to crop productions.”

During the course of their research the authors were surprised to discover that many of the birds in the study were not indigenous to the region, and had migrated thousands of miles from Canada and the U.S. The authors are now looking into how changes in the landscape of farms can help or hinder these important pollinators.

“Our findings highlight that habitat enhancements to support native biodiversity can have multiple benefits for agriculture,” concluded the authors in the study. “A better understanding of potential interactions among ES [ecological services] is long overdue. Identifying these ecological and economic synergies and trade-offs among ES will be essential to quantifying their collective values accurately and managing them effectively.”

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