Enjoying a cup of coffee? You should thank the birds and the bees, study finds

BURLINGTON, Vt. — It’s time to talk about the birds and the bees. No, not that conversation. Instead, researchers from the University of Vermont report that if it weren’t for our winged friends, hot coffee would be much harder to come by each morning. Scientists have discovered that coffee beans are much larger and more plentiful when birds and bees collaborate to protect and pollinate coffee plants.

Incredibly, some birds and bees travel thousands of miles to perform their coffee-making duties. Study authors estimate that without nature’s helpers, coffee farmers would see a 25 percent decline in crop yields. That represents a loss of about $1,066 per hectare of coffee.

Working together makes coffee taste better

The global coffee market is a $26 billion industry. These findings hold major implications for everyone involved in the coffee space, from farmers and corporations to latte drinkers the world over, with study authors pointing to the enormous impact of “nature’s unpaid labor.” Even beyond all that, though, the research team believes this work has even broader implications.

Case in point, this is the first research project ever to show, via real-world experiments conducted at 30 coffee farms, that nature’s combined contributions to coffee production far surpass its individual efforts. More specifically, birds and bees are much more beneficial for coffee yields when they work in unison; birds simultaneously perform pest control duty while bees pollinate.

“Until now, researchers have typically calculated the benefits of nature separately, and then simply added them up,” says lead study author Alejandra Martínez-Salinas of the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in a university release. “But nature is an interacting system, full of important synergies and trade-offs. We show the ecological and economic importance of these interactions, in one of the first experiments at realistic scales in actual farms.”

“These results suggest that past assessments of individual ecological services—including major global efforts like IPBES—may actually underestimate the benefits biodiversity provides to agriculture and human wellbeing,” adds Taylor Ricketts of the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Environment. “These positive interactions mean ecosystem services are more valuable together than separately.”

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Do birds and bees set the price of coffee?

Both Latin American and U.S. scientists manipulated various coffee plants across 30 farms, all while making sure to remove birds and bees from the environment using large nets and small lace bags.

In total, the team simulated four unique scenarios: Solely bird activity (pest control), only bee activity (pollination), no bird and bee activity whatsoever, and a “natural environment” in which both bees and birds were free to pollinate and eat nearby insects. One common example of a pest taken care of by birds is the coffee berry borer, considered one of the biggest pests hindering coffee production worldwide.

When working together, the birds and bees’ combined impact on fruit set, fruit weight, and fruit uniformity was much greater than their individual effects. All of these factors are major indicators of both coffee quality and price.

“One important reason we measure these contributions is to help protect and conserve the many species that we depend on, and sometimes take for granted,” concludes 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 support our lives and livelihoods, but face threats like habitat destruction and climate change.”

The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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