Nature’s cogs: helping pollinators feed the world

Honey bees and other pollinators are vital for the planet’s ecosystems and crops, but they are dying out at alarming rates due to climate change, intensive farming and pesticides. A startup in Andalusia, Spain, has a solution: producing hoverflies on an industrial scale. Following an R&D project with Dutch partners, Polyfly is breeding new ways to pollinate more fruit crops.

Tiny, busy and essential

Honey bees, bumblebees, hoverflies and other pollinating insects are the planet’s peons, fertilising flowers to ensure plants reproduce and thrive. Some 80% of crops and wild-flowering plants depend on their pollination. Yet scientists warn these tiny cogs so crucial to our bio-systems are in alarming decline, which has huge ramifications on our ability to produce healthy food for a growing world population.

One in three bee, butterfly and hoverfly species are disappearing in the European Union. “Already, half of crops in the European Union that depend on pollination face a deficit,” said Frans Timmermans, the EU’s former climate chief, as the European Commission announced a New Deal for Pollinators, an action plan to reverse the decline in pollinating insects by 2030. He explains, “Bees and butterflies must thrive again if we want European farmers to be prosperous in a healthy environment.”

The challenges of producing healthy food has been clear for some time; the world’s population is projected to grow to nearly 10.4 billion in the mid-2080s from an already staggering 7.9 billion. What’s more, current global challenges have thrown into sharp relief the need to secure a healthy and reliable food supply.

Alternative natural pollination

In southern Spain, Polyfly in Almeria, Andalusia, has a much-needed solution to boost natural pollination in farms. Marc Vaez-Olivera, a food engineer with a great interest in insects and their application in the agricultural industry, teamed up with Yelitza Velásquez, a PhD biologist with considerable experience researching insect rearing techniques, to create the agro startup, Polyfly, in 2017.

The two science-driven entrepreneurs spotted a niche: helping farmers that are producing seeds, fruits and vegetables, primarily in greenhouses located in Europe, find suitable alternative pollinators and breed them.

They selected the syrphids insect family (commonly known as a “hoverflies” or “flower flies”) as a new group of managed pollinators. With their team at Polyfly, Vaez-Olivera and Velásquez figured out how to breed two hoverfly species on an industrial scale for the first time ever: Eristalinus aeneus (Goldfly) and Eristalis tenax (Queenfly).

“It’s incredible what Marc and Yelitza have achieved,” says Polyfly’s project manager Belén Belliure Ferrer. “Several research institutions and companies worldwide have tried to mass-rear pollinating hoverflies on a large scale and in totally controlled conditions, and our small company, Polyfly, is the one that has finally done it.”

Hairy hoverflies proved ideal for their farmer clients growing seeds and protected crops because (like honey bees and bumblebees) they exhibit strong foraging behaviour, but (like flies) they proved to be more versatile, resistant and calmer in covered areas, such as greenhouses and tunnels.

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From seeds to fruits and vegetables

Knowing how to best apply hoverflies for pollinating involves painstaking research to create methods for different crops and settings. Initially, the researchers at Polyfly focused chiefly on methods for pollinating seed crops, their first target market.

However, to grow its business, the startup wanted to expand into protected fruit and vegetable crops, so one of Polyfly’s doctorate researchers, Manuela Sánchez, investigated how to use hoverflies to pollinate mangoes and watermelons. Then, the startup managed to secure funding to develop more methods for other protected crops, like avocado and strawberry, in an international R&D project.

In this project, Polyfly worked with the prestigious University of Wageningen’s Institute of Plant Research in the Netherlands, which specialises in how to produce healthy and sustainable food, and with the company Grupo La Caña, a leading vegetable and fruit producer in the European horticultural sector.

“Thanks to our Eurostars project, we were able to move quicker to reach new markets.” – Belliure Ferrer.

The researchers spent three years testing and validating the use of hoverflies to pollinate avocadoes and strawberries in Andalusia and the Netherlands. They designed tests to calculate the ideal number of pollinators to use on those plants in greenhouses and under tunnels, and studied how they reacted to crop management strategies like different coloured netting and LED lighting (compared to natural light), which is increasingly being used in darker northern European climates. “We found hoverflies are perfectly able to pollinate under LED lights, better than bumblebees,” says Belliure Ferrer.

Managed pollinators for protected cropping

The resulting methods will allow the company to commercialise the hoverflies for new crops like tropical fruits and berries in the next 12 months. Project partner, Grupo La Caña, may be among the first to use the hoverflies with their growers.

“The strawberry trials performed in Spain revealed that hoverflies increase production of early season, top quality fruits; those that sell at a higher price,” says Belliure Ferrer. In the Netherlands, adding hoverflies as pollinators for strawberry crops increased the overall production and quality of the fruit. Similarly, pollination with hoverflies increased the yield and quality of avocadoes.

Thanks to its production development, Polyfly has already grown beyond a startup to a small company of 18 staff, with half the team focusing on research and development.

“We expect the new methods to boost our sales by several orders of magnitude in the short and medium term” said Belliure Ferrer. Polyfly’s R&D team is now moving into testing the hoverflies on other berries, such as blueberries, blackberries and raspberries, and open-field crops.

“The international collaboration has led us much further down the path towards our long-term objective: bringing biodiversity back where it is needed.” – Belliure Ferrer.

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Posted 31 Jan 24