Declines in Insect Pollinators

  • The recent European Red List for Bees showing that nearly one in ten species of wild bees are facing extinction.
  • The State of Nature 2013 report showed the extent of insect declines in the UK – more than half of the bee, butterfly and moth species studied have declined in the past 50 years. In recent decades, three bumblebee species have become extinct, 52% of solitary bees have declined, 227 species of moth have declined (with 62 species going extinct in the 20th century, and, possibly, four more since 2000) while 72% of butterfly species experienced downward trends between 2001-2011. 

Threats to Insect Pollinators

Pollinator declines are caused by a combination of drivers including: the loss of pollinator habitats and habitat fragmentation, loss of wildflowers and diverse food sources, increased use of harmful chemicals (pesticides and herbicides), changes in beekeeping and the spread of disease. The drivers of wild pollinator declines can be directly related to the intensification of agriculture, which has led to loss of habitats and an increased use of pesticides and herbicides, and urbanisation. Historically, the most rapid rate of pollinator extinction is associated with changes in farming beginning in the 1920s. Since the 1930s in the UK we have lost an estimated 97% of our wildflower meadows, which provide habitat and food sources for wild pollinators.

New evidence indicates that climate change is increasingly a threat to bees, making it even more urgent to reduce other stressors such as pesticides, and help bees to adapt by creating high quality diverse habitats.

Changes in the numbers of managed honeybees on the other hand, tend to relate to beekeeping practices and the number of beekeepers, as well as factors affecting bee health. The latter include disease issues, resulting from the national and international trade in managed bees, and the negative impacts of pesticides and herbicides. 

Loss of pollinator habitat

Pollinating insects are a diverse group of animals with equally diverse habitat requirements, which can vary seasonally. Regulation to protect all wildlife and its habitat is essential for maintaining the food, shelter and movement of pollinators. Implementation of England’s Biodiversity Strategy 2020 was rated as “failing” by Wildlife and Countryside Link’s Nature Check 2013, while the 2011 UK National Ecosystem Assessment showed that 30% of our natural services were in decline. Approximately 250 pollinator species are listed on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan priority species lists; but they are not adequately protected and in most cases action to save them has not materialised so they are continuing to decline towards extinction. 97% of wildflower meadows have been lost in the UK since the 1930's, which is prime pollinator habitat. Therefore more meadows should be listed as Sites of Special Scientific Interests.

It is clear that existing regulation for biodiversity remains too weak and needs to be improved especially as it has been found that regulation, which protects biodiversity, is extremely cost-effective, yielding far more economic benefits
than costs.

As well as economic benefits, creating and protecting pollinator habitat has wide-reaching societal benefits including improved landscape aesthetics (especially within cities) and opportunities for community-based projects, improving happiness and well-being. 

97% of wildflower meadows have been lost in the UK, which is prime pollinator habitat

Neonicotinoids and other pesticides

Neonicotinoids pose particular risks to bees and other pollinators due to their:

  • Unintended presence in pollen and nectar
  • Persistence in soil and water contamination of field edge flowers
  • Potency at extremely low concentrations. Bees and other pollinators may be killed by acute exposure to neonicotinoids in pollen and nectar. However, sub-lethal poisoning is a more likely scenario, with effects including:  
    - Inability to navigate and fly back to the hive, nest or colony                                                                                                
    - Reduction of foraging and food collection                                                                                                                              
    - Impairment of memory and ability to learn                                                                                                                              
    - Impairment of communication with nest mates, a disaster for social insects. Chronic exposure can also compromise the immune system and cause increased susceptibility to diseases and pathogens      
  • The sub-lethal effects of regular exposure to very low doses of neonicotinoids on individual bees and their colonies have been largely ignored by the risk assessment processes of the UK and EU regulatory authorities                                                                                                       

Pesticides, such as insecticides and herbicides, can be damaging to pollinators, other wildlife and the ecosystem. Herbicides kill meadow flowers and arable plants, reducing forage options for pollinators. Neonicotinoids are a relatively new type of insecticide used since the 1990s to control a variety of pests, such as aphids, leaf-feeding beetles and root-feeding grubs. In the UK today crops sown using neonicotinoid seed-coatings cover more than 2.3m acres. Many insecticides are highly toxic to pollinators and three neonicotinoids were restricted by the European Commission in 2013 due to the "high acute risk" they posed to honeybees.

Fields of crops in England, such as oilseed rape, can be treated with as many as 22 applications of chemicals, including pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, with potentially disastrous effects on pollinators; the chemicals come together to form a ‘lethal cocktail’ of toxic effects. Not only are combinations of multiple chemicals dangerous, but they are rarely tested for and are less well studied than other factors potentially affecting bees, despite growing evidence that chemical pesticides can increase the susceptibility of pollinators to parasites and diseases.

Pesticides can pose an ongoing risk to pollinators and wildlife long after their application, and over a wide geographical area. Some are persistent in the environment and can become washed into natural habitats with rainwater, thus entering off-farm pollinator habitat. For example, in the spring of 2013, 91% of water samples taken at Canadian wetlands after snowmelt were contaminated with neonicotinoids, which demonstrates their ubiquity and persistence. It's estimated that approximately 95% of the pesticide enters the environment with just 5% being taken up by the target plant. 

High levels of neonicotinoids have also been found in wildflowers including poppies and hogweed, that are growing next to treated fields. Due to the persistence and distribution of neonicotinoids in the environment the current restrictions, which only relate to crops attractive to bees, need to be extended to all crops. 

Farming without neonics 

There are many agricultural techniques, which reduce the need for pesticides, such as crop rotation, the use of resistant varieties of plants and the careful monitoring of pest populations to determine if threshold levels have been exceeded. Approaches that use all of these techniques and others in a co-ordinated way are known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Better deployment of IPM techniques could yield excellent results. It has been shown that re-designing crop rotations and using new technologies could reduce pesticide use by 50%. Farming methods, which already properly employ these techniques to achieve minimal dependency on pesticides, such as organic farming, are more ecologically sustainable, are richer in wildlife and benefit pollinators.

Under IPM, pesticides should be used only when absolutely necessary, as a last resort when preventative non-chemical techniques have failed. However, a culture has developed where the use of pesticides is an insurance measure against potential pest damage, rather than a reaction to real need. For example, evidence increasingly suggests that neonicotinoids do not deliver the yield benefits to crops that it was assumed they did, thus emphasising how the risks they pose to pollinators and the environment justify a ban.

The evidence on neonicotinoids has now piled up to the point that the risk to bees is essentially confirmed. The Government’s failure to accept the need for restrictions on neonicotinoids is a failure to address long-term agricultural sustainability or deploy sound evidence. 

Agri-environment payment support for pollinators

Agri-environment schemes pay farmers to undertake positive environmental actions.  Studies of agri-environment schemes have shown that well-chosen land management options can produce excellent results for pollinators and other wildlife.  In the last two years there has been an increasing focus in the UK schemes on creating and maintaining high-quality pollinator habitats.

EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments just in England were due to amount to £15 billion between 2014 and 2020. The Government and devolved administrations must ensure that the initial progress that has been made to restore pollinator habitats in the countryside is continued and amplified.  The Bee Coalition is convinced that payments to farmers from public money should be increasingly linked to the provision of public goods.  Pollination is an exemplary public good and it is essential that post-Brexit there is a new agri-environment scheme that provides a significantly increased amount of funding for the restoration and creation of a network of wildflower meadows and other pollinator resource-rich habitats.