A coming of age for campaigning around the plight of pollinators is leading to fundamental change across the horticulture industry, according to campaigners and industry figures.
Parks are slashing bedding and leaving meadow grass and verges to grow, nurseries and garden centres are coming under pressure to justify pollinator-friendly labels and to grow plants without neonicotinoids, and farmers are increasingly adding bee-friendly margins to fields while being under legislative pressure to cut pesticide use.
But the NFU says the science is still not there to prove neonicotinoids have a field-scale impact on bees, with more evidence needed, and even then there may never be conclusive science in the area.
A pressure group campaign against nurseries using neonicotinoids on plants is likely this spring, while a University of Sussex report by Dr Francis Ratnieks has criticised pollinator recommendations in garden centres as lacking a scientific basis.
Friends of the Earth and Buglife commissioned a YouGov survey that found 81% support for cutting some areas of grass less often in parks and roadside verges to allow wild flowers to grow, 88% support for reducing the use of bee-harming pesticides and 92% support for planting more wild flowers and other plants in local parks and community spaces. The groups have launched a local authority pollinator guidance document.
Burnley Borough Council green spaces head Simon Goff says changing to planting perennials in parks saves £35,000 and halts an "endless cycle of stupid work" after park budgets reduce from £2.7m in 2003 to £100,000 in 2020. These "forced changes in management" also follow a local poll that found ratepayers' top priority for parks is clearing litter, followed by dog mess clearance, children's play, encouraging wildlife and then only 22% prioritising floral displays.
"The public still want some semi-formal displays so it's a question of either spread the margarine thinly or differentiate maintenance," says Goff. He points out that at Bank Hall Park there is now a 7ha meadow in an 11ha park with an agricultural contractor cutting it for hay. Reducing conventional cutting reduces CO2, increases biodiversity and make parks more attractive with associated health benefits, he adds.
Bowling green verges
Dorset County Council environment service director Peter Moore says the "absence of cash is on our side", adding: "If people want bowling green verges they can't have them." The "hot potato" issue of leaving verges to encourage pollinators involves removing high-nutrient topsoil and clippings as well as cutting mowing from four to three times a year, saving £150,000 over three years.
Buglife pollinator adviser Paul Evans says the new local authority guidance document aims to do more for pollinators and looks at grass cutting, ornamental planting and planning, such as creating meadows in new housing schemes. Pollinators are "an easy sell to the public and local authorities" and having a policy has more long-term benefit than piecemeal action, he adds.
Simon Potts, professor of biodiversity and ecosystem services at the University of Reading, says an 800-page Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services report from late 2016 looked at 250,000 papers from the past 30 years and found that pollinator declines are driven by land-use change, intensive agriculture, GM, pathogens and pests, climate change, invasive aliens and pesticides. The report recommends 23 actions including restoring habitats, reducing pesticide usage and encouraging more use of integrated pest management (IPM).
University of East Anglia NERC research fellow Dr Lynn Dicks says agriculture has been part of the pollinator reduction problem and is "also part of the solution". The gradual decline in pollinator distribution that has been driven by loss of flowers and habitats and increased use of fertilisers and pesticides over a century is starting to reverse, she adds. "There is a lot of evidence that pesticides have impacts, but not in real environments."
Dicks says there is only one study where neonicotinoids affect the wild insect population - Rundlof et al in Nature, 2015. In that study, use of clothianidin saw a 60% drop in queen numbers, which Dicks says is "startling" and "for me implies if you take a precautionary approach you shouldn't be using these seed coatings". She recommends more flowering hedgerows, fallow land, patches of wild habitat, more field margins and use of IPM to boost pollinator numbers.
Friends of the Earth's Craig Bennett says national pollinator strategies introduced through the British Isles since 2013 show a consensus that action is needed.
National pollinator strategy
Defra's national pollinator strategy head Michael Rose says the strategy supports pollinators on farmland as well as in towns, cities and countryside and seeks to improve evidence with a 2016 progress report out in the next few weeks. He says "evidence is key", with a three-year monitoring programme funded by Defra, the Welsh Government and Joint Nature Conservation Committee, and led by the Centre for Hydrology & Ecology in a research and development phase this year.
NFU senior regulatory affairs adviser Chris Hartfield says Potts' and Dicks' research shows a range of drivers impacting on bee populations "and try as they might, even with the collective brains of hundreds researchers across the world looking at the evidence, they couldn't rank the drivers. Evidence points to the drivers but no one is saying the same thing is more or less important than another."
He points out that the evidence of 250,000 papers shows some species in decline but we do not know whether numbers are climbing or there are the same number but fewer species. Hartfield agrees that the Rundlof study is the only one on a full-blown field scale that has picked up the harmful impact of neonics on wild bees. But he adds: "What you don't know from that study is whether that effect jumps the hedge and is great enough to have an impact on the wider bee population.
"There are 250,000 papers but the question is will science ever solve some of these questions we debate so strongly? Some people don't think the evidence will because it comes down to these issues being very political and how down the years people interpret things using the precautionary principle." He says this "goes beyond science and evidence into politics and policy".