The secret to better coffee? The birds and the bees

A groundbreaking new study reveals that when birds and bees work cooperatively to protect and pollinate coffee plants, coffee beans grow larger and more plentiful.

Without these winged aides, some of whom travel thousands of miles, coffee farmers would lose 25% of crop yields, or approximately $1,066 per hectare of coffee.

This is critical for the $26 billion coffee industry – which includes consumers, farmers, and corporations that rely on nature’s unpaid labour for their morning jolt – but the research also has broader implications.

The forthcoming study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is the first to demonstrate, through real-world experiments on 30 coffee farms, that nature’s contributions — in this case, bee pollination and bird pest control — are greater when combined.

“Historically, researchers calculated the benefits of nature separately and then added them together,” lead author Alejandra Martnez-Salinas of the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center explains (CATIE). “However, nature is an interacting system brimming with significant synergies and trade-offs; we demonstrate the ecological and economic significance of these interactions in one of the first experiments conducted at realistic scales on actual farms.”

“These findings suggest that previous assessments of individual ecological services – including major global efforts such as IPBES – may have underestimated the benefits of biodiversity to agriculture and human well-being,” says Taylor Ricketts of the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Environment. “As a result of these beneficial interactions, ecosystem services are more valuable collectively than individually.”

Researchers from Latin America and the United States used a combination of large nets and small lace bags to manipulate coffee plants across 30 farms, excluding birds and bees. They examined four distinct scenarios: bird activity alone (pest control), bee activity alone (pollination), no bird or bee activity at all, and finally, a natural environment in which bees and birds were free to pollinate and eat insects such as the coffee berry borer, one of the most destructive pests affecting coffee production globally.

The study found that the combined beneficial effects of birds and bees on fruit set, fruit weight, and fruit uniformity – all of which are critical factors in fruit quality and price – were greater than their individual beneficial effects. Without birds and bees, the average yield dropped by nearly 25%, to approximately $1,066 per hectare.

“One reason we quantify these contributions is to aid in the protection and conservation of the numerous species on which we rely and often take for granted,” says Natalia Aristizábal, a PhD candidate at UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment and Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. “Birds, bees, and millions of other species sustain our lives and livelihoods, but they face threats such as habitat loss and climate change.”

One of the most surprising findings of the study was that many of the birds used to control pests on coffee plants in Costa Rica had migrated thousands of miles from Canada and the United States, including Vermont, where the UVM team is based. Additionally, the team is examining how changing farm landscapes affect birds’ and bees’ ability to contribute to coffee production. They are backed by the United States. The Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act is administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

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