There has recently been an upsurge in public and political interest regarding honey bees and wild pollinators. Declining numbers of both bees and beekeepers in the UK and abroad have sparked concern over the effects that loss of pollination services will have on crop yields and biodiversity as a whole.

Pollination services are estimated to provide £440 million to agriculture in the form of increased yields – about 13% of UK income from farming. Whilst pollinator decline is unlikely to threaten global food security as cereal crops are wind-pollinated, demand for insect-pollinated crops is increasing; the area cultivated has risen by 38% since 1989 in the UK.

Although threats such as Colony Collapse Disorder and the varroa mite have focussed attention on the domestic honey bee, there are thousands of other insect species including solitary bees, bumblebees, moths, butterflies and hoverflies that often play a more significant role in pollinating plants. The overall abundance of pollinators is thought to have declined in the UK since the 1970s. For example, managed honeybee hives in England declined by 50% between 1985 and 2005, and 67% of common widespread moth species have declined since the 1970s. However, the data is poor for many pollinator groups due to the lack of coordinated monitoring programmes. Similar trends in other countries (especially the USA, where domestic honey bee stocks have declined by 59%) have led to claims of a global pollination crisis. There are many possible causes for this decline, including agricultural intensification, increases in pests and diseases, agrochemicals such as neonicotinoid pesticides, climate change, and the reduction in beekeeping.

Neonicotinoids

Recently the EU agreed to ban neonicotinoids; a pesticide that works by disrupting insects’ nervous systems. There is evidence from laboratory and small-scale controlled studies that they affect bee behaviour. However, the relevance of these studies to practical impacts in the field is uncertain. We ask for greater government support of research into bee health and the various factors that impact upon it. Download our full response.

The Government Environmental Audit Committee held an inquiry on Pollinators and Pesticides and produced a comprehensive report

Research & Strategy

There is no co-ordinated government strategy to maintain pollination services in the UK, but several agencies and research councils have relevant initiatives:

  • The Insect Pollinators Initiative is funded by Defra, two research councils (BBSRC and NERC), the Scottish Government and the Wellcome Trust.
  • Healthy Bees is a ten year strategy to protect and improve the health of honeybees in England and Wales. Defra and the Welsh Assembly Government provided £2.8m to fund it to 2011. Most of the money is for assessing the health of hives, but some is allocated for enhancing the beekeeper education programme. Scotland is also developing a honeybee health strategy.
  • Natural England’s Environmental Stewardship (ES) agri-environment scheme includes some measures, such as sowing seed mixes of important nectar plants to benefit pollinators on farmland. About 65% of English farmland is on farms which are in the ES scheme.
  • Natural England has set minimum disease screening standards for imported bumblebee colonies released in glasshouses and polytunnels.
  • The Veterinary Medicines Directorate has recently launched an action plan to facilitate licensing of new honey bee medicines, including those already authorised in other EU Member States.
  • Operation Pollinator is a three-year project funded by Syngenta and Sainsbury’s to plant 1000 hectares of British farmland with wildflower seeds: almost half the wildflower habitat created by farmers in ES was delivered through Operation Bumblebee.
  • Outside the UK, special initiatives by the Convention on Biological Diversity (the International Pollinator Initiative) as well as several continental, national and regional programmes have been established to tackle the issues of pollinator declines.

Additional Sources of Information:

POSTnote no. 348, Insect Pollination, January 2010.

Potts S.G, Biesmeijer J.C., Kremen C., Neumann P., Schweiger O., and Kunin W.E. (2010) Global pollinator declines:  trends, impacts and drivers. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, in press, DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2010.01.007