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Europe is short of 13 million honeybee colonies for crop pollination

Europe is short of 13M honeybee colonies for crop pollination - 9 January 2014. Jacob Bishop/University of Reading
News from: University of Reading

Europe has 13.4 million too few honeybee colonies to properly pollinate its crops, according to new research from the University of Reading.

The discovery, made by scientists at the University's Centre for Agri-Environmental Research (CAER), shows that demand for insect pollination is growing five times as fast as the number of honeybee colonies across Europe as farmers grow more insect-pollinated oil crops, such as oilseed rape and sunflowers, and fruit.

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Researchers, led by Professor Simon Potts at the University of Reading, compared the numbers of honeybee colonies to the demand for pollination services across 41 European countries, and mapped the changes between 2005 and 2010. They found:

In more than half of European countries - including the UK, France, Germany and Italy, there were not enough honeybees to properly pollinate the crops grown.

The problem was particularly acute in Britain, which has only a quarter of the honeybees it needs to pollinate crops.

Only Moldova - one of the continent's poorest countries, with an economy more than 300 times smaller than the UK's – has a bigger honeybee deficit than the UK.

Europe as a whole only has two thirds of the honeybee colonies it needs, with a deficit of more than 13.4 million colonies.

Map of Europe shows the capacity of national honeybee colonies to supply demand for pollination services
Map of Europe shows the capacity of national honeybee colonies to supply demand for pollination services. Image: University of Reading

The findings suggest that agriculture in many countries growers are increasingly reliant upon wild pollinators, such as bumblebees, solitary bees and hoverflies. However, Europe still lacks coherent environmental and agricultural policies to protect these insects' habitats.

Dr Tom Breeze, who conducted the research published today (8 January 2014) in the Journal PLOS One, said: "This study has shown that EU biofuel policy has had an unforeseen consequence in making us more reliant upon wild pollinators.

"The results don't show that wild pollinators actually do all the work, but they do show we have less security if their populations should collapse."

This follows other research from the University of Reading, published last month in the Journal Biological Conservation, showing that wild pollinators such as bumblebees and solitary bees are just as effective pollinators of oilseed rape as honeybees.

Dr Mike Garratt, who led the study, said: "Wild pollinators are clearly already making an important contribution to oilseed rape pollination."

Professor Potts said: "This new research provides yet more evidence of the need for greater protection of our wild pollinators, the unsung heroes of the countryside, upon whom humans depend so closely for our food supply.

"At the moment there is disconnection between agricultural and environment policies. Farmers are being encouraged to grow crops which are dependent on insect pollinators, yet they do not get enough credit for helping the insects they are increasingly reliant upon.

"We need a proper strategy across Europe to conserve wild bees and pollinators through habitat protection, agricultural policy and farming methods – or we risk big financial losses to the farming sector and reduced food security."

The team also highlighted the economic impacts of pollination services to the British apple industry in a third study. Insect pollinators add £37M a year to the value of just two varieties of British apples, Gala and Cox, by increasing fruit yield and quality, found University of Reading researchers, led by Dr Mike Garratt. The findings are published this month in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment.

ENDS

Notes to editors

For more information or to organise interviews please contact Pete Castle (see contact details below). 

Research was conducted by the University of Reading's Centre for Agri-Environmental Research, and funded by the STEP Project (Status and Trends of European Pollinators project through the The European Community's Seventh Framework Programme (EU FP7) and the Insect Pollinators Initiative (IPI) Crops project, funded and partnered by the BBSRC, NERC, Defra, Scottish Government, Living with Environmental Change, and Wellcome Trust.

"Agricultural Policies Exacerbate Honeybee Pollination Service Supply-Demand mismatches across Europe" is published in the journal Public Library of Science One - the world's largest open access journal - and is available for free download by anyone from 5pm (EST) 8 January 2014.

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