Who is pollinating all the crops?

honey bees

honey bees (photo credit: Mike Sheridan)

Honeybees have crashed in numbers since the 1980’s but a recent study indicates that crop productivity is still rising raising the question of ‘who is pollinating all the crops?’. The study shows that we only have a third of the honeybee numbers that we need.

The University of Reading’s Centre for Agri Environmental Research team have concluded that other species are stepping up to the mark and replacing the traditional honeybee pollinator. Excactly who is doing it though still needs to be studied. [pullquote]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.[/pullquote]

20% of all UK crops rely on insect pollination.

With 20% of the UK agricultural crops reliant on insect pollination understanding what is happening is extremely important. The study highlighted that in the 1980’s the UK had sufficient honeybees to met 70% of it’s pollination services. Due to a slump in honeybee numbers it’s now estimated that we have enough honeybees to undertake at most a third ofpollinations required.

Pollination services are vital to agricultural productivity in the UK” says lead author Tom Breeze “as of 2007, 20% of the UK’s cropland was covered by insect pollinated crops like oilseed rape and apples. For decades now we have assumed that honeybees have been providing the majority of pollination services to these systems but have very limited evidence to base this assumption on.

Domestic honeybee numbers have crashed but crop productivity continues to increase.

Although honeybee numbers have crashed the productivity of insect pollinated  crops – such as apples and rapeseed – have gone up by over 50% since the 1980’s and not only that but the percentage of total crops grown that is reliant on insect pollination has increased from 8% to 20%. 

You would think that such a severe deficit in honeybees would cause massive loss of crop productivity” adds Professor Simon Potts who led the study team “However, examining yields of these crops since the 80’s, they have just kept going up. While some of that is down to better production systems, other species have probably stepped in to fill the gap left by honeybees.

Which of the other 250 species of bee have taken over role of honeybee?

The UK has 250 species of bees and many more species of insects that undertake pollination.  While honeybees are believed to play a major role in pollination there has never been a widespread study to prove this.  Wild pollinators such as bumblebees and hoverflies are probably just as important as the domesticated honeybee.

This study challenges the long held beliefs surrounding the importance of honeybees as the major pollinators and could potentially result in a paradigm shift in people’s thinking,‘ says Science and Innovation Manager Dr Andrew Impey from the Natural Environment Research Council. 

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.

Insect pollination worth £430 million a year.

With insect crop pollination estimated to be worth over £430 million a year to the farmer it’s important to fully understand crop -pollinator interactions. The next step for the team is to get out into the fields and start to look at who is replacing the work once done by honeybees.

External sites:

Planet Earth
Centre for Agri Environmental Research