What's the buzz with bees and pollinators? Without them it will costs billions to feed us – we have them to thank for every third mouthful we eat

We cannot underplay the importance of the service pollinators perform for us.

We have always taken it for granted that they would be there to carry out their free services to mankind. If current trends continue, we will not have enough wild pollinators for all the crops our rapidly growing population needs.

What do pollinators do for us?

We tend to think of bees in relation to pollination, yet the groups of insect pollinators are incredibly diverse. 

Honeybees in managed hives are responsible for pollinating between 5-15 per cent of the UK's insect-pollinated crops. This leaves 85-95 per cent of the UK’s insect-pollinated crops relying on wild pollinators.

Wild pollinators include bumblebees and other bees, butterflies and moths, flies and various other insects such as beetles, wasps and thrips.

Pollinators provide an important service for free, pollinating £690 million worth of crops annually. If we had to take over this job ourselves it would be very tough and time-consuming, costing close to two billion each year.

Many plants rely on insects to pollinate their flowers. While most plants cannot seed without being pollinated. Without pollinators there would be no strawberries, apples, avocados, chocolate, cherries, olives, blueberries, carrots, grapes, pumpkins, pears, cotton, plums or peanuts… Plus, very few flowers in our gardens and countryside.

 

Our countryside has become a desert

A perfect storm of problems has combined to create an environment where barely any food, water or shelter is available for pollinators in the British countryside. These problems include:

  • our changing climate causing unpredictable and extreme weather
  • intensive farming destroying and isolating flower-rich habitats
  • the use of pesticide, which kills both pests and beneficial insects
  • the rise of urban growth and the loss of flowery habitats.

Discover what Dr Mick Hanley, Associate Professor at the University has to say about research into bumblebees shying away from field-facing hedgerows.

The countryside is disappearing

How do we protect our native bee species?

Dr Mairi Knight, Head of the School of Biological and Marine Sciences worked on a project alongside Dr Jon Ellis and Dr Carly Benefer, and Andrew Brown, from the B4 Project on how to protect our native bee species. Dr Knight said:

“Bees are among the most charismatic and familiar animals of the insect world, and thoughts of a summer’s day picnic would not be complete without the recollection of the hum of bees or the sight of a belaboured individual lifting off from a flower with its heavy load of pollen.

“Of all the species, honey bees are the most commercially important, for their role in pollination of crops and because they provide us with honey. But like many of their sister species they have suffered recent heavy declines in numbers.

“'Colony collapse disorder' has become well-documented over recent years as having a very significant impact on honey bee colonies, but there is no single smoking-gun identified as its cause.”

Building on this research, Dr Knight and colleges exhibited Plan Bee at the Eden Project in February 2019 which shed further light on University research into native bees.

“This exhibition was a great opportunity to make more people aware of our research, and the native dark honey bee in general. It was also a chance for us to reach out to beekeepers across the South West and beyond, whose help is critical to the success of our project. The aim is to work in partnership with beekeepers to characterise our own biodiversity and to raise awareness of the threats from continental imports, working together to find solutions that do not depend on them.

“Native species are an important element of a region’s ecology because they adapt to their surroundings and any particular challenges they pose. One of the key threats from imports is the spread of harmful novel pathogens which natives often struggle to fight. It is a delicate balance but one we need to strike if we are to maintain diverse pollinator populations in the future.”

Understand more about the diversity and decline of our local bee populations

Support bees on campus

As populations of honeybees are in decline in the UK and around the world, the apiary on campus provides the opportunity to support and study the local variety of honeybee as part of our push for sustainability and conservation within the South West.

Without insect pollination, about one third of the crops we eat would need to be pollinated by other means, at great expense. 

Bees are the predominant and most economically important group of pollinators in most agriculturally significant regions.

In collaboration with the B4 project, we installed beehives with the British Black Bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) on campus at Portland Villas, because:

  • the bees contribute to biodiversity
  • they provide a teaching and learning resource through activities such as observation, lectures and on-site visits
  • almost every subject taught on campus could benefit from learning from the bees from architecture, music and science to philosophy history, and mathematics
  • they help to engage with the local community over an exciting topic, in particular the Natural Connections programme for primary schools.

Discover how you can get involved with the University beekeeping group

How to bee a good gardener

Here are a few simple ways to attract bees and other pollinators into your garden:

  • grow more nectar-rich flowers, shrubs and trees to provide for pollinators all year long
  • leave parts of your garden to grow wild – great patches for nesting and feeding sites
  • go green – put away pesticides, as they may harm pollinators and other insects
  • cut the grass less often so more flowers and weeds grow, which appeal to pollinators
  • build a bee hotel and avoid disturbing potential nesting sites in hedgerows, trees and dead wood.

An example of a bug hotel. Why not be creative and design your own?

Why should we conserve biodiversity? How can we manage and restore habitats?

With a hands-on approach, we’ll give you the scientific tools to address these issues, developing your understanding of plant and animal biodiversity in the UK and abroad. Develop your knowledge of key areas such as population ecology, evolutionary processes, behavioural ecology, conservation genetics and habitat management, and prime yourself for a career in ecology, conservation or environmental monitoring.

Study BSc (Hons) Conservation Biology