Many of the world’s most valuable crops, including apples, coffee, tomatoes are pollinated by insects. Wild bees, however, are the unsung heroes for our food security and not honeybees as previously thought. In the UK, for example, crops including strawberries, runner beans, and, increasingly oilseed rape, are pollinated by other insects.
There is mounting evidence that honeybee hive numbers are in a long-term state of decline in many developed nations. Analysis of hive numbers indicates that current UK populations are only capable of supplying 34% of the nation's pollination needs, falling from 70% in 1984.
In spite of this decline, insect-pollinated crop yields have risen by an average of 54% since 1984, casting doubt on long-held beliefs that honeybees provide the majority of pollination services.
Professor Simon Potts from the University of Reading’s from the Department of Agriculture has led research on the importance of insect pollinators for the UK's food security. The study Pollination Services in the UK: How important are Honeybees? examined how important insect-pollinated crops are to UK agriculture and how much of this work is done by honeybees. Findings suggest that the majority of this value is derived from wild pollinators and not honeybees.
Professor Potts said:
In the early 1980s honeybees provided most of our pollination services, however, following severe declines in hive numbers over the last 30 years, there are no longer enough honeybees to do the job and it is now our wild insects, such as bumblebees and hoverflies, that have filled the void to ensure that our crops are pollinated and our food production is secure.
Tom Breeze, who conducted analysis for the study, said:
The total monetary value of pollinators to crop production in the UK is estimated at £430 million per year. This research suggests that the majority of this value is derived from wild pollinators and not honeybees.
Stuart Roberts, Chairman of the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society, said:
We welcome this research from the University of Reading. Though many beekeepers still believe that honeybees are the most important pollinators, they can only pollinate a third of crops at most, and in reality they probably only contribute to 10-15% of the work. Wild bees are the unsung heroes for our food security and so it is these species on which we need to focus our conservation efforts.
As insect-pollinated crops are likely to become increasingly important to UK agriculture in the immediate future, this study could help direct new developments in effective pollination management at a field and landscape scale.
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