• How our food system and wider ecology are reliant on bees and other pollinators

Environmental Laboratory

How our food system and wider ecology are reliant on bees and other pollinators

Jun 24 2024

Like many other aspects of our natural world, our pollination system is in crisis – which is a fancier way of saying that bee and other pollinator insect populations are declining. These declines impact not only “non-economic” ecosystems (like wildflower meadows, prairies, forest understories, even arctic tundra), they also starve food and clothing crops as well as timber sites of necessary pollen, forcing producers to choose between increased costs by doing this work manually or accepting lower yields and therefore, lower revenues.  

What do bees do? 

Bees are indispensable to the pollination of many crops. Domestic honeybees, kept in hives, are responsible for approximately 34% of pollination, while wild bee species account for the remaining 66%. Honeybees alone contribute to about 80% of worldwide pollination. They pollinate around 70 of the 100 crop species that feed 90% of the world's population, including fruits, vegetables, and nuts such as apples, blueberries, and cherries. Essential crops heavily reliant on honeybee pollination include kiwifruit, passion fruit, watermelon, squash, macadamia nuts, and Brazil nuts. 

Beyond food crops, bees also pollinate plants critical to other industries. For instance, timber from broad-leafed trees used in construction, cotton for fabrics, and various plants used in medicinal products rely on bee pollination. Moreover, beeswax and bee venom are used in medical procedures and cancer treatments, respectively. 

Are bees going extinct? 

The decline in pollinator populations is alarming. In the UK alone, bee populations have declined by 55% in Northern Britain and 25% in Southern Britain since 1985. Globally, the geographic range of bees has shrunk by roughly 25% between 1980 and 2013. Managed honeybee hives in England decreased by 50% between 1985 and 2005. 

Several factors contribute to this decline, including habitat loss, pesticide use, climate change, and diseases. The UK has lost over 97% of its natural wildflower meadows since World War II due to changes in farming methods. The 2013 ban on neonicotinoid insecticides and initiatives to grow wildflowers on crop borders have helped some wild species, but overall, the decline continues . 

The reduction in pollinator populations directly affects agricultural productivity. Without bees, many crops would experience lower yields, leading to higher costs for manual pollination and reduced revenue for farmers. In the UK, wild pollinators are responsible for pollinating crops worth £690 million annually. Replacing this service would cost an estimated £1.8 billion each year. 

The decline of pollinators also threatens biodiversity and ecosystem stability. Pollinators contribute to the reproduction of many wild plants, which in turn support other wildlife. The loss of these plants can lead to cascading effects throughout the ecosystem. 

How can we ‘save the bees’? 

Efforts to mitigate pollinator decline include habitat restoration, banning harmful pesticides, and promoting sustainable farming practices. For example, the rise in wild pollinator species such as those essential for crops like oilseed rape has been attributed to the cultivation of wildflowers on field borders and pesticide bans. 

Research and monitoring are crucial for understanding and addressing the decline in pollinator populations. Studies, such as those conducted by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, provide valuable data on population trends and the effectiveness of conservation measures.  

The decline in bee and other pollinator populations poses a significant threat to our food systems and wider ecology. Bees are vital not only for the pollination of many crops but also for maintaining biodiversity and supporting various industries. Addressing this crisis requires concerted efforts in conservation, sustainable farming practices, and ongoing research. The survival of our food systems and ecological health depends on the well-being of these essential pollinators. 

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AET 28.2 April/May 2024

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