How could governments around the world protect bees?

Bee on a flower

29 November 2016 by Sylvie Kruiniger

NERC-funded researchers have gathered crucial evidence on how governments and people can best protect pollinators vital to the production of food worldwide.

Pollinators like bees are vulnerable to pests, diseases and environmental changes. In recent years these factors have had a major impact on their populations. Without pollinators, many of the crops we rely on would not produce a harvest.

Dr Lynn Dicks from the University of East Anglia and Dr Adam Vanbergen from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) have been part of a huge UN project - the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services (IPBES) - to bring together information on the topic, alongside other experts from across the globe.

The intercontinental team has been gathering knowledge not just from journals and researchers but also from farmers, small rural communities and indigenous peoples. They have built a global picture of the value pollinators bring to people both economically and culturally. Their findings will be considered at the Convention on Biological Diversity's Conference of the Parties in Mexico next month. These will help policymakers make decisions on protecting bees across the world.

Pesticides that are unacceptably toxic to bees, birds and even humans are in widespread use.

- Dr Lynn Dicks, University of East Anglia[1]

The report from the project concludes that pollinators are increasingly under threat from human activities. But it also covers a wide range of things people and governments can start doing to prevent their decline.

Last week, Dr Dicks and colleagues from the project published a list of ten evidence-based policy recommendations that every country could start doing now to protect pollinators:

  1. Raise pesticide regulatory standards.
  2. Promote integrated pest management.
  3. Include indirect and sublethal effects in genetically modified crop risk assessments.
  4. Regulate movement of managed pollinators.
  5. Develop incentives, such as insurance schemes, to help farmers benefit from ecosystem services instead of agrochemicals.
  6. Recognise pollination as an agricultural input in extension services.
  7. Support diversified farming systems.
  8. Conserve and restore 'green infrastructure' (a network of habitats that pollinators can move between) in agricultural and urban landscapes.
  9. Develop long-term monitoring of pollinators and pollination.
  10. Fund participatory research on improving yields in organic, diversified, and ecologically intensified farming.

"These aren't the only things policymakers could do", she explains, "and they might not even be the things that would have the most impact out of any possible option. We chose these policy options because, after looking at all the evidence, they are the things that fit best within current policy objectives, or that have specific opportunities right now to influence policy at international scale."

She says it's important to act now: "Although we're discovering more all the time, bringing all that expertise together helps policymakers to make informed decisions more quickly."

Pressure to raise pesticide regulatory standards internationally should be a priority. The World Health Organisation and the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have worked for many years to develop a global code of conduct on pesticide management, but there are still many countries that don't follow it. This means pesticides that are unacceptably toxic to bees, birds and even humans are in widespread use.

In the journal Nature, Dr Vanbergen and colleagues from the project give more detail on the value of pollinators, their status, and the many factors affecting them such as habitat loss, agricultural management, pesticides, climate change, invasive species, genetically modified crops and disease.

"Currently, the best data we have on pollinator declines is from North America and northern Europe," says Dr Vanbergen. "We urgently need to get better data worldwide, but the information we do have already tells us a great deal. For example, we know that in many areas several species are found in a shrinking range, some species have become extinct and the number of different species living there has fallen."

By making farms more diverse we could help to make farming more sustainable in the long run.

- Dr Adam Vanbergen, CEH

"It's a multifaceted problem. For example, modern, large-scale intensive farming causes a number of different issues. Large crop monocultures mean pollinators might be less able to access the variety of floral foods or habitat they need. Genetically modified crops that can cope with being sprayed repeatedly with herbicides mean weeds that provide food for pollinators are all but eradicated. By making farms more diverse to create refuges for these beneficial insects, we could help to make farming more sustainable in the long run. You need to take a broad view though because if you look at a different country or a different crop, the problems you encounter could be completely different."

This project has usefully brought together current knowledge to help set direction. Meanwhile, the research continues. NERC researchers are working on a range of other projects to understand and protect pollinators. We're currently funding a project in Sheffield that's trying to attract more plants and animals to its roadside verges with living highways and our researchers are also partnering with big brands - one of our fellows helped Marks & Spencer to develop its Pollinator Action Plan. The plan is intended to counteract the decline of the pollinating insects and work with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to explore the impact of different farming practices on pollinators.

The thirteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity will take place in Cancun, Mexico, 4 - 17 December 2016.

IPBES meeting

IPBES meeting, bringing together current knowledge on protecting pollinators

Dr Vanbergen and Dr Dicks were part of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services - external link - project.

IPBES assessment report on pollinators, pollination and food production (PDF, 11MB) - external link

They also helped lead the UK Insect Pollinators Initiative - external link, through which NERC jointly funded a number of projects.

  1. When this story was first published, this initial quote was incorrectly attributed to Dr Vanbergen, rather than to Dr Dicks. This was corrected on 30 November 2016.