School of Life Sciences

In-person participants at the SASUF Bees and the SDGs seminar

Seminar Explores Role of Pollinators in Sustainable Development

UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science co-hosted a hybrid seminar with the South Africa Sweden University Forum (SASUF) on the Pietermaritzburg campus and online via Zoom on the topic of how pollinators promote the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Titled Bees and the SDGs, the seminar brought together researchers and students to explore and collectively develop ideas on pollination, plant ecology, and evolution, and their links to the SDGs. It presented critical perspectives on this underexplored topic and explored possibilities for future collaboration between South African and Swedish universities.

The SASUF is a strategic internationalisation project launched in 2018 to strengthen ties between Sweden and South Africa in research, education, and innovation. The second phase of the project plan, SASUF 2030, runs from 2022 to 2024. The collaboration comprises 40 partner universities and is funded by these and the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education, with seed funding facilitating student involvement, virtual exchange grants, and other grants and scholarships. The project is supported by the SASUF Student Network and the embassies in both countries.

The seminar was a satellite event hosted as part of the launch of the SASUF 2030, with more than 100 participants from more than five countries.

The programme comprised six presentations, two delivered by visiting faculty from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Alnarp, Sweden: Associate Professor Paul Egan and Dr Carolina Diller, a former postdoctoral research fellow at UKZN and co-organiser of the event.

Egan described the links between pollination and at least five of the SDGs, saying that all these goals are integrated and require a systems perspective. Pollinators have a role to play in livelihood development, sustainable agriculture, human health, climate adaptation, disaster risk reduction, and biodiversity conservation.

Mrs Vidushi Patel from the University of Western Australia joined online to speak about why bees are critical for sustainable development. She said that every species has a specific role in the biosphere that forms the foundation for the SDGs.

Patel noted that flowering plants and bees have co-evolved and that the creatures visit 90% of the world’s top 107 edible crops, as well as making other ecological, economic, and cultural contributions to at least 15 of the SDGs and 30 of their targets. She highlighted their contributions to innovation and inspiration, the quantity and quality of food, nutrition and medicine, inclusive communities, biofuels, forest conservation and regrowth, healthy and diverse ecosystems, and economic opportunities.

Patel said the SDGs are key to communicating the impact of sustainability initiatives and could highlight the potential contributions of species groups, landscapes, seascapes, waterways, or environmental features, demonstrating the importance of systems thinking and influencing policy decisions.

Dr Margarita López-Uribe of Penn State University in the United States presented virtually on insect adaptations to agricultural environments in the case of squash bees, which have adapted to large-scale agricultural crops.

‘We are studying agriculture as a force for environmental change, so we are interested in understanding how the specific context of these agricultural systems not only shapes ecological interactions between pollinators and plants, but also the evolutionary trajectories of pollinators,’ said López-Uribe, noting that agriculture has been associated with a decline in bee populations and biodiversity loss.

UKZN’s Professor Timo van der Niet, who co-organised the event, presented evolutionary-inspired solutions to the crop pollination crisis, based on his research on fundamental ecological and evolutionary processes to understand the role of pollinators in driving plant evolution.

‘The similarity between what goes on in natural systems and agricultural systems inspired me to think about ways in which my research can inform research on applied issues [and vice versa],’ he said.

Van der Niet said there are clear links between pollinators and the SDGs, particularly for food provision and human health. He described the current use of several ecological and technological interventions to address yield limits linked to pollination, but also suggested how insight from natural systems could be used to explore alternative solutions. Pollination crises are a widespread issue in natural systems, and knowledge of evolutionary responses to these could be applied to crops using smart breeding.

Diller spoke about strawberry reproduction under climate change. She examined the biotic and physiological effects of temperature and water stress, particularly species turnover or decline and a change in plant-insect interactions, as well as reduced flower numbers and size, and increased pollen sterility.

Diller said pollinators improve the commercial quality of berries and reduce yield loss and touched on the environmental impacts of unsustainable strawberry production and the effect of climate change on plant-insect interactions.

In a pre-recorded contribution, Professor Jeff Ollerton of the University of Northampton in the United Kingdom touched on research from his book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society to describe how plant-pollinator interactions underpin terrestrial biodiversity, in turn supporting the 17 SDGs. He noted that pollinators support sustainable agriculture and said they are critical for habitat restoration, pointing out their contributions to soil carbon storage through the products of pollination.

Egan said it is vital to link pollinators to the architecture of the SDGs, account for SDG interactions, examine SDG conflicts from a multisectoral perspective, and identify and fill knowledge gaps via “translational” research, especially in terms of human health linkages, and climate shocks and disaster risk reduction.

The hybrid seminar brought together scientists from four continents and demonstrated that UKZN is firmly embedded in an international context.

Words and photograph: Christine Cuénod