Study highlights over-reliance on bees

Researchers calculate that pollinating work of wild bees is worth more than £1,900 per hectare.

Bees: substitute pollinators are needed for stable food production
Bees: substitute pollinators are needed for stable food production


British horticulture is overly reliant on a "first team" made up of just two per cent of bee species that are responsible for around 80 per cent of crop pollination, a new international study has found.

The study, supported by the Government-funded Insect Pollinators Initiative and published in the journal Nature Communications, showed that on average, the pollinating work of wild bees is worth more than £1,900 per hectare, so contributing more than £1bn to the UK economy each year.

But most of this work is done by a handful of common species, mostly bumblebees and solitary bees, with most other species found to contribute very little.

Professor Simon Potts, director of the Centre for Agri- Environmental Research at the University of Reading and one of the report's authors, said: "The few bee species that currently pollinate our crops are unlikely to be the same types we will need in the future."

As Britain's climate, environment and crop varieties change, growers can then call on the pollinating species that are best suited to the task, he added. "We can't just rely on our current starting line-up of pollinators. We need a large and diverse group of species on the substitutes' bench if we are to ensure food production remains stable."

In light of this, placing a cash value on current "ecosystem services" should not overlook the capacity for other species to contribute in the future, said Potts.

Pollinator reliance

A clear example of over-reliance on an individual pollinator comes in the form of the honeybee, said Professor Simon Potts, director of the Centre for Agri-Environmental Research.

"Their massive decline in Britain has led to a reliance on wild bees to do much of the pollination. At one time, honeybees were enough to pollinate most of Britain's crops. Now there are only enough to pollinate around a quarter of them. If we didn't have other species of bees to turn to, we would already be facing a food security catastrophe."

The honeybee's decline has had graver consequences in the USA, which lacks suitable alternative pollinators of non-native fruit crops.

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