Why Are Bees Important for Our Survival?

Most people think of the honey bee when anyone mentions pollinators.  It’s true that bees are responsible for most plant pollination, but they are not alone in having this function.  In recent years the number of pollinators has begun to drop.  This is something we should all be worried about.

The importance of the bee’s pollinating role will take centre stage at the Chelsea Flower Show this week.  The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in partnership with BBC Earth have created the BBC Studios Our Green Planet and RHS Bee Garden. The aim is to inspire people to grow bee friendly plants, highlighting the power of plants and how they can be used to halt the decline in pollinator numbers.

This blog will discuss all things pollination and why bee are important for our survival.

Image of bee hives with written sign saying caution bees at work

Why are Bees so important for our Survival?

Without pollinators 35% of global food production would disappear overnight [1] .  If we had no insects, we would see our food supply and the numbers of plants we see every day shrink drastically.  We tend to take pollinators for granted but their numbers are declining year on year. It’s time to take action to reverse this downward trend.

What data is there are on pollinators?

Insects are the largest group of animal pollinators, with bees being the most common, visiting around 90% of pollination dependent food crops. Bees are not the only pollinators. Other important species are wasps, butterflies, moths, beetles, weevils, thrips, ants, midges, bats, birds, primates, marsupials, rodents, and reptiles.

The UK assesses the numbers of pollinators every year.  These numbers have been recorded in a series of 1km grids across the UK every year since 1980.   The latest published numbers show a drop between 1987 and 2014 of 14%. 

In 2017 the UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme (PoMS) was established as the world’s first scheme to generate systematic data on the visits of pollinators to flowers.  Anyone can join this scheme to generate and upload data via the Flower Insect Timed Count (FIT) scheme by spending 10 minutes in good weather watching insects visiting a single plant.  More details on this scheme can be found here FIT Counts: help us monitor pollinators | PoMS (ukpoms.org.uk) .

Globally, there are 20,077 known bee species [1].  Most are wild, free living and unmanaged.  A few species are managed in hives, such as the western honey bee Apis mellifera and the eastern honey bee Apis cerana

In the UK, you may be surprised to learn that there are 250 recognised species of bee [2]:

  • 224 species of solitary bee,
  • 25 bumble bee species
  • 1 honey bee species (Apis mellifera). Found in managed hives.

The National Bee Unit keeps a count of hives and in 2020 the estimated figure for the number of hives in the UK is 260,000.

Why are Bee Numbers Dropping?

There are several reasons for bee numbers dropping including:

  • Loss and destruction of habitat
  • The use of pesticides
  • The action of parasites

Quantitative studies have shown that habitat loss is one of the main factors that leads to a decrease in pollinator numbers [3].  Urban sprawl, and replacing gardens with hard landscape, removes plants that bees rely on for food and for nesting sites. Habitat destruction in agricultural areas is often accompanied by the use of pesticides that may have lethal and sub-lethal effects on the bee population. 

Changes to plant biodiversity can also affect pollinator numbers. In the UK there is evidence that 76% of forage plants used by bumble bees for food declined in number between 1978 and 1998 [3]

Climate change and pollution is also an issue.  Changes to the climate affect the lifecycle of wild plants the bees use for food, leading to a lack of food at critical times in the bee’s lifecycle.   Pollution can also affect the scent trails that bees use to navigate, limiting their range and thus reducing pollination activity.

The use of pesticides in managing agricultural land also has a significant impact on bees and other pollinators.  Herbicides use can reduce the biodiversity of plants in an area, leading to a lack of pollen and nectar for pollinators resulting in a decline in numbers.

Parasites that attack the bee population are also reducing pollinator numbers.  The most serious threat to honey bee colonies is the Varroa mite (Varroa destructor). This parasite caused the destruction of a large number of bee colonies across the UK in the 1990s. 

Other parasites include the small hive beetle (Aethinia tumida) and the Asian Hornet (Vespa velutina) which feeds on honey bees.

What can we do to reverse this decline and increase bee numbers?

Declining pollinators is a global problem and solutions to halt the decline are in place at a global, regional, and national level.

At a global level The UN has an international pollinator initiative that researched pollinator populations, the effects of pesticides and the drivers of pollinator decline.  In 2018 the second plan of action was launched (covering the period 2018-2030) [4].  It contains four main categories of activity:

  • enabling policies and strategies,
  • field level implementation,
  • civil society and private sector engagement.

Regionally, here in Europe the EU has a pollinator strategy that has three aims:

  1. Improving knowledge of pollinator decline, it’s causes and consequences.
  2. Tacking the causes of pollinator decline.
  3. Raising awareness, engaging society at large and promoting collaboration.

Nationally here in the UK Defra launched the UK’s national pollinator strategy in November 2014 [5]

Its vision is:

‘to see pollinators, thrive, so they can carry out their essential service to people of pollinating flowers and crops, while providing other benefits for our native plants, the wider environment, food production and all of us’.

A 10 year plan was developed to realise this vision and is shown in Figure 1

Figure 1 The UK’s 10-year plan from the National Pollinator Strategy [5]

  1. Supporting pollinators on farmland
  • Working with farmers to support pollinators through the CAP and with voluntary initiatives to provide food, shelter and nesting sites.
  • Minimising the risks for pollinators associated with the use of pesticides through best practice, including Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
  1. Supporting pollinators across towns, cities and the countryside
  • Working with large-scale landowners, and their advisers, contractors and facility managers, to promote simple changes to land management to provide food, shelter and nest sites.
  • Ensuring good practice to help pollinators through initiatives with a wide range of organisations and professional networks including managers of public and amenity spaces, utility and transport companies, brownfield site managers, local authorities, developers and planners.
  • Encouraging the public to take action in their gardens, allotments, window boxes and balconies to make them pollinator-friendly or through other opportunities such as community gardening and volunteering on nature reserves.
  1. Enhancing the response to pest and disease risks
  • Working to address pest and disease risks to honey bees whilst further improving beekeepers’ husbandry and management practices to strengthen the resilience of bee colonies
  • Keeping under active review any evidence of pest and disease risks associated with commercially produced pollinators used for high-value crop production.
  1. Raising awareness of what pollinators need to survive and thrive
  • Developing and disseminating further advice to a wide range of land owners, managers and gardeners as part of Bees’ Needs.
  • Improving the sharing of knowledge and evidence between scientists, conservation practitioners and non-government organisations (NGOs) to ensure that actions taken to support pollinators are based on up-to-date evidence.
  1. Improving evidence on the status of pollinators and the service they provide
  • Developing a sustainable long-term monitoring programme so we better understand their status, the causes of any declines and where our actions will have most effect.
  • Improving our understanding of the value and benefits pollinators provide, and how resilient natural and agricultural systems are to changes in their populations.

The UK’s strategy shows that we all have a part to play in halting the decline of bee numbers. Business and the public sector can ensure that landscaping around their buildings include areas planted with bee friendly plants.  All of us in our homes can use any garden space or a window box to plant bee friendly plants.  One of the largest contributions can be made by Local Authorities, landowners and agricultural businesses to ensure that our urban centres and countryside are managed to promote biodiversity, containing areas that are planted with flowers that provide food and nesting sites for our bee population. 

This week the RHS (Be Inspired To Plant For Pollinators at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2022 / RHS Gardening) and the BBC our Green Planet are demonstrating what plants to grow and how to create a bee friendly space.  We should all be watching, learning and taking action, our food supply depends on it.

If you have enjoyed this article you can follow me on Facebook and Linkedin.  This will ensure that you are notified of future posts.

Paul Beers
May 2022

Sources

[1] IPBES (2016): Summary for policymakers of the assessment report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services on pollinators, pollination and food production.  (Available at https://www.ipbes.net/assessment-reports/pollinators )

[2] The UK Bee Population. House of Commons Debate Pack Number CDP 2017/0226, 10 November 2017 (Available at https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CDP-2017-0226/CDP-2017-0226.pdf )

[3] Potts S.G., Biesmeijer J.C., Kreman C., Neumann, P., Schweiger, O. & Kunin, W. (2010) Global Pollinator Declines: Trends, Impacts & Drivers. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 25(6) 345-353

[4] The International Pollinator Initiative Plan of action 2018-2030  (Available at https://www.cbd.int/sbstta/sbstta-22-sbi-2/sbstta-22-ipi-draft.pdf )

[5] The National Pollinator Strategy: for bees and other pollinators in England  November 2014  (Available at  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/794706/national-pollinator-strategy.pdf )

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