Resilience requires bees and butterflies

Pollinating insects are on the decline in Europe. There is simply not enough food – wildflowers – in the modern rural landscape. In Sweden, agricultural fields and managed forests dominate and partly hide the remains of an older landscape, where humans in more than two thousand years governed the land in a way that supported biodiversity.

You and I, us humans, are all living creatures surrounded and utterly dependent of other living creatures. The historical land-use can help us understand that human activities can actually promote biodiversity. But personal initiatives can not by themselves save the pollinating insects; we need a shift in politics.

I recently visited a butterfly garden in a rural area not to far from Uppsala. It was a mixed experience; positive because of the commitment by the people involved, but also negative since the vast agricultural fields surrounding the rather small garden accentuates the message they want to get across – wildflowers and insects are on an alarmingly steep decline.

We passed forests and agricultural fields when we drove from Uppsala. As a biologist I have learned that most of the forests was used as pastures for grazing cattle up until some sixty years ago, and a substantial part of the fields today filled with ripening wheat, rye and barley where meadows up until around a 100 years ago. They were pastures and meadows filled with a variety of flowers so common that their names have found their way into songs well known by Swedes. The songs remain, but most of the flowers are so rare that they can only be seen in protected areas.

At the garden, the founder Allan Lundkvist gave a short speech. He wasn’t the best speaker in the world, it was rather obvious that he did not do this to be admired, he did it out of necessity, a personal calling. He told us about the decline in butterflies and bees, and he urged us to spread the word. His words became reality when I looked at the rather small butterfly garden, and then looked at the vast sea of agricultural fields surrounding it. He hadn’t made the garden to help bees and butterflies as the main goal, he made the garden for people to come and listen to his message.

Humans all over the world need pollinators. We not only need the fruits and seeds that ripes after pollination as food, we need plants to survive and reproduce in general, the oxygen they produce, the shelter they provide, to keep the soils from running out to sea. It is therefore important to have parts of the landscape devoted to wildflowers, bees and butterflies – supporting enough pollinators to service the agricultural fields, as well as keeping a population of parasitic insects ready to attack when new pest species invade. Most governments acknowledge this fact, but when it comes down to practical politics, the message is another. This problem is harder for a trained biologist to understand than the decline in pollinators; we need your help. Let us once again use the land in a way that supports biodiversity. It’s for our own benefit.


This text was written for the TEDxUppsalauniversity event 21 September 2013.