It’s easy to forget how much we rely upon biodiversity, both locally and globally. As well as the obvious intrinsic value of species, natural habitats and ecosystems, they also provide us with functioning food chains, clean air and water, nutritious soil, medicines, and protection from natural disasters.
Biodiversity underpins the health of the planet, but it has declined by more than a quarter in the last 35 years. Of particular concern, and the focus for our Bee Cause campaign, is the recent dramatic decline of bees and other pollinators. There are over 260 species of wild bee in the UK and none of these are protected by law. About 23 of these species have become extinct since 1800, and a quarter of the remaining species are now listed in the Red Data Book of threatened species. UK honeybee numbers halved between 1985 and 2005.
Bees are an essential component in helping to sustain our food and economy. We rely on them to pollinate our fruit and vegetables and without them it would cost farmers around £1.8 billion to do this manually.
With a burgeoning human population, agricultural plantings have grown larger to meet increased food demands. This means a greater need for insects to pollinate the crops at bloom time, which can occur suddenly and simultaneously in monocultured landscapes. But with the worldwide pollinator population crashes, fears of future food shortages and higher food costs have been sparked.
Pollinating insects such as honey, bumble and solitary bees, butterflies, moths and hoverflies play a crucial role in the life cycle of many plants, including those we rely on for survival. Researchers have estimated that bees contribute £651 million to the UK per year. They also found that 85 per cent of the UK’s apple crop and 45 per cent of the strawberry crop relies on bees to grow.
The reasons for the pollinator declines remain something of a mystery, but are thought to be a combination of habitat and forage loss, pesticides, pests, disease, unsustainable farming practices and climate change, and the complex interaction between these factors. For example, in the UK 97% of our wildflower-rich grasslands have disappeared, a loss of a vital food source for pollinators. Meanwhile the increased use of pesticides, particularly neonicotinoid pesticides, have been shown to interfere with honeybees’ ability to navigate back to the hive from foraging trips and produce queens in their nests.