£10 Million Initiative Launched to tackle Bee and Pollinator Decline

Bee Craft: June 2009

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Honey bees are the most important food crop pollinators

New funding is announced for research into pollinators

UP TO £10 million is to be invested to help to identify the main threats to bees and other insect pollinators, under a major project announced on 21 April 2009.

Pollinators – including honey and bumble bees, butterflies and moths – play an essential role in putting food on our tables through the pollination of many vital crops. These insects are susceptible to a variety of diseases and environmental threats, some of which have increased significantly over the past five to ten years. Climate change, in particular warmer winters and wetter summers, has had a major impact on pollinators. As a result, the numbers of pollinators have been declining steadily in recent years, with the number of bees in the UK alone falling by 10-15% over the past two years.

NEW RESEARCH PROGRAMME

To gain a better understanding of why this is happening, some of the UK’s major research funders have joined together to launch an important new research programme. The biggest challenge will be to develop a better understanding of the complex relationships between biological and environmental factors which affect the health and lifespan of pollinators.

The funding will be made available to research teams across the UK under the Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) partnership, the major initiative by UK funders to help the UK respond effectively to changes to our environment. This is a joint initiative from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Defra, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Wellcome Trust and the Scottish Government.

Comments on the new funding initiative were made by:

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn:

‘Aristotle identified bees as the most hard working of insects and with one in three mouthfuls coming from insect-pollinated crops, we need to support bees and other pollinators. I announced in January that Defra would put an extra £2 million into research funding and I am delighted our partners have agreed to boost this to up to £10 million. This funding will give some of Britain’s world-class researchers the chance to identify the causes of the decline we’re seeing in bee numbers and that will help us to take the right action to help.’

Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive:

‘We are facing a fundamental problem with the decline of bees and other pollinators. They have an absolutely crucial role in pollinating many of our important crops. Without effective pollination we will face higher food costs and potential shortages. This programme will help us to understand why numbers have decreased and the steps we could take to reverse this. Complex problems such as this require a modern systems biology approach, a strategy at the core of BBSRC’s vision. This will also feed into BBSRC’s wider food security research programme which aims to deliver the science necessary to provide the nutritious and affordable food we need for the future.’

Professor Alan Thorpe, Chief Executive of NERC:

‘Through the Pollinator Initiative, the LWEC partners will address what is a complex multidisciplinary problem. We need to conduct research that will help us to understand the links between bees and other pollinators and the range of environmental factors that affect them in various ways. This research will provide vital insights into why there has been a steep decline in these insect populations in recent years and help us to find solutions to the problem.’

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Mason bees are also useful pollinators and they use artificial nest tubes readily

‘It is extremely important that we move swiftly to understand and try to reverse the decline in the populations of bees and other pollinating insects. The devastating effect that this decline may have on our environment would almost certainly have a serious impact on our health and well-being. Without pollinating insects, many important crops and native plants would be severely harmed.’

Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary of the Scottish Government:

‘It is vital that we increase our understanding of the issues affecting populations of bees and other pollinators such as wasps, butterflies and beetles and in particular whether these are due to climate change. The impact these insects have on our rural industries, such as the soft fruit sector, and on plant biodiversity across Scotland cannot be under-estimated. Any reduction in numbers could have catastrophic consequences not just for our environment but also for our economy. I welcome this initiative and am confident the results of the programme will enhance our knowledge and help prevent further declines in bee numbers.’

Elin Jones, Minister for Rural Affairs of the Welsh Assembly Government:

‘Honey bees and other pollinators are vital for local food production, which is the key to environmentally sustainable farming. By working with the other partners in this initiative, Defra has shown its commitment to safeguarding the population of the honey bee in the UK.’

The funding programme will be administered through BBSRC. The NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology will provide post-award co-ordination for the programme and contribute special expertise in long-term and large-scale ecology that will strengthen the research effort.

BBKA COMMENT

The British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA) welcomes the announcement that additional money is to be found to fund bee health research. This is in addition to the £2 million already promised by Defra and will take the total funds available to some £10 million.

The BBKA has recently published its document Honey Bee Health – Research Concepts (download from www.britishbee.org.uk/index.php) which identifies key research projects to be pursued, covering a range of work from varroa to viruses, queen bee quality to bee breeding and husbandry to habitat loss.

This new funding will enable Research Institutes to make bids to pay for the urgent research work needed to combat the threats facing honey bee health. The BBKA looks forward to playing a full part in identifying and prioritising the research projects to be initiated.

Tim Lovett, President of the BBKA, said: ‘This news is most welcome and represents a victory for the campaign that the British Beekeepers’ Association has undertaken during the past 12 months. It is vital that these funds are committed to the work that can make a real difference and meet the challenges facing honey bees.

‘Our sincere hope is that the majority of these funds will be directed towards practical research into the problems and threats that honey bees face in this country. We very much look forward to working closely with the funding bodies to ensure the correct projects and priorities are identified and supported based closely on our document Honey Bee Health – Research Concepts’.

COMMENT FROM THE NATIONAL FARMERS’ UNION

The £10 million research initiative to tackle bee and pollinator decline announced by Defra must be targeted accurately to identify and solve the real problems facing the key pollinators of crops, according to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).

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Andrena flaxipes, one of the ground nesting solitary bees, on a pear flower
Some of the Andrena family emerge very early and are ideal fruit pollination candidates as they are pollen collectors

Defra Secretary of State, Hilary Benn, said the £10 million fund will give researchers the chance to identify the causes of the decline in bee numbers and that will enable Defra take the right action to help. However the NFU believes it is essential that the new funding is not spent, and ultimately wasted, on well-intentioned research into pollinating insects that are eventually shown to be of relatively little importance in terms of crop pollination.

Director of policy Martin Haworth said: ‘The industry has been asking Government and other funding bodies for many months to increase the level of funding for research into the problems affecting honey bee colonies. The new funding announced today is a positive move and has come about as a direct result of this lobbying and the increased awareness of the problems facing honey bees.

‘The magnitude of these problems has always been set in the context of the £200 million annual value of UK crop pollination provided by honey bees. It follows that the logical approach to using this new funding is to confirm the contribution of honey bees and any other key pollinating insects to crop production and then to allocate the funding accordingly to address the actual problems faced by the key pollinators.

‘Meanwhile, considering the accepted importance of honey bees to crop production and the severity of the immediate health problems facing honey bees, a significant proportion of this funding needs to be allocated straight away to tackling honey bee decline.

‘The NFU will continue to work with the Bee Farmers’ Association and with other bee industry partners to ensure this extra funding is used to tackle the most important issues facing honey bees and other key crop pollinators.’

FRUIT EXPERTS WELCOME BEE RESEARCH

World leading fruit experts in the heart of the Garden of England have welcomed the announcement of £10 million to boost research to try and halt the declining number of bees and other pollinating insects. Scientists at East Mailing Research (EMR), in Kent, are now hoping to work with other UK researchers to bid for part of the funds to address current and future pollination problems threatening apple, pear, cherry and plum orchards.

The UK has not yet suffered the colony collapse disorder experienced in North America but the number of honey bees in the UK has fallen by 15% in the past two years. In addition, numbers of other pollinators, such as wild bees, hoverflies and butterflies also appear to be in decline.

Dr Michelle Fountain, an entomologist at EMR, is keen to see research progressed as quickly as possible to avert a lack of successful pollination of fruit and other key crops -threatening UK food security and leading to higher production costs and price increases on the supermarket shelves.

She said: ‘The way bees are managed in the USA is quite different from the UK approach and, so far, the problems we are seeing with honey bees here are not as dramatic as on the other side of the Atlantic. However, it is clear that our hives are being significantly weakened with up to half of the UK managed honey bee colonies dying over the winter – probably as result of a combination of complex factors, including a variety of pest and diseases, loss of important natural floral resources and the inappropriate use of pesticides.

‘While honey bees are very important for crop pollination we also need a greater understanding of other potential managed and wild bee pollinators. With top fruit, one of our key areas of expertise at EMR, it is possible that we could exploit the use of solitary Mason bees with a system developed by Robin Dean, of CJ Wildbird Foods, to enhance pollination in orchards. These bees are extremely effective at pollinating blossoms. We often see them in our own gardens in early spring as they are more active early in the season than honey bees.

‘Working in partnership with complementary specialists at other institutions, Dr Simon Potts, head of the Pollination Research group at the University of Reading, and Robin Dean, of CJ Wildbird Foods, we can investigate ways of increasing the numbers of solitary bees and other naturally occurring pollinators in orchards in order to produce Class 1 fruit.

‘Native bees thrive while pollinating our fruit trees but they need other sources of pollen nearby to sustain them through the summer months when the apple, cherry and pear blossom has long gone. By identifying more clearly the range of plants and habitats these insects require, we will be able to assist fruit growers to manage their hedgerows and broader landscapes to increase fruit pollination.’

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