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Are Europe’s wild bees bouncing back?

U. LEEDS (UK) — Declines in the biodiversity of pollinating insects and wild plants in Britain, Belgium, and the Netherlands have slowed in recent years.

Researchers found evidence of dramatic reductions in the diversity of species ibetween the 1950s and 1980s, but researchers say the picture brightened markedly after 1990, with a slowdown in local and national biodiversity losses among bees, hoverflies, and wild plants.

“Most observers have been saying that the 1992 Rio Earth Summit targets to slow biodiversity loss by 2010 failed, but what we are seeing is a significant slowing or reversal of the declines for wild plants and their insect pollinators,” says Bill Kunin, professor of ecology at the University of Leeds.


The pollen specialist bee Andrena hattorfiana is rare in north-west Europe. (Credit: Nicolas J. Vereecken)

Hoverfly diversity has improved in Belgium, shifting from stable diversity in the 1980s to significant (20 percent) increases in recent decades. (Credit: Tony Hisgett/Wikimedia Commons)

“These species are important to us. About a third of our food production, including most of our fruit and vegetables, depends on animal pollination and we know that most crop pollination is done by wild pollinators.

“Biodiversity is important to ensuring we don’t lose that service. Relying on a few species could be risky in a changing environment.”

Published in the journal Ecology Letters, the study found a 30 percent fall in local bumblebee biodiversity in all three countries between the 1950s and the 1980s. That decline slowed to an estimated 10 percent in Britain by 2010. In Belgium and the Netherlands, bumblebee diversity had stabilized.

The picture was better for other wild bees, with an 8 percent reduction in diversity in the Netherlands and a stable picture in Great Britain showed significant increases (7 percent in the Netherlands and 10 percent in Britain) over the past 20 years.

While these solitary bees continued to decline in Belgium, hoverfly diversity improved there, shifting from stable diversity in the 1980s to significant (20 percent) increases in recent decades. British wildflower diversity had declined about 20 percent from the 1950s to the 1980s, but again the declines have ceased in the past 20 years.

Not all groups fared so well. Butterfly diversity continued to fall in all three countries at roughly the same rates as in the past.

“It is possible that by 1990 the most sensitive species had already gone,” says lead author Luisa Carvalheiro. “However, that’s probably not the whole story, as there are still plenty of rare and vulnerable species present in recent records.

“There is a much more encouraging possibility: the conservation work and agri-environment programs paying farmers to encourage biodiversity may be having an effect. We may also be seeing a slowdown of the drivers of decline. The postwar emphasis on getting land into production and on more intensive farming has given way to a more stable situation in which the rate of landscape change has slowed and in which agrichemical excesses are regulated.”

The research team, including scientists from 18 institutions in Europe and the United States, used historical and contemporary records of species’ presence held by organizations including the European Invertebrate Survey, Butterfly Conservation, the Bees Wasps and Ants Recording Society, the INBO Research Institute for Nature and Forest in Belgium and the University of Mons, Belgium.

The research was funded under the European Union Framework Program 7 projects Status and Trends of European Pollinators and Securing the Conservation of biodiversity across Administrative Levels and spatial, temporal, and Ecological Scales, with additional support from the UK Insect Pollinators Initiative.

Source: University of Leeds

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6 Comments

  1. Rose

    Surely he means insects, not animal:

    “These species are important to us. About a third of our food production, including most of our fruit and vegetables, depends on animal pollination and we know that most crop pollination is done by wild pollinators.

    Come on! Get the species right!

  2. Rose

    Aside from my nit picky comment above, I’ve seen quite a rise in hoverfly and other types of bee’s here in California. Its my hypothesis that the European Honey Bee has been abused as an industrial pollinator in the US and is on the road to extinction, here at least, where they are not native. About 10% of the EHB I encounter has a birth defect, the wings abnormally small and deformed, with a throbbing stinger butt and strangely uncoordinated head movements, unable to fly much less pollinate. Its because of the EHB tame nature that they’ve been able to be herded into unnatural situation and given industrialized sugar water as the only form of sustenance, as their honey storages are raped by humans for human use. This treatment of captive insect creatures is just as bad as animal feedlots. Not only is the EHB on its way out, but humans have a skewed perception of them. They fear them when they swarm, which is simply moving the new Queen to her own quarters. The swarm is immediately exterminated. People also do not know that the EHB dies as soon as it stings. Nor do they see a difference btwn wasps which bite over and over relentlessly, and the benign honey bee.

  3. Harry Watts

    I support Rose in her comments above, as the unnatural industrial movement of Bees is contrary to natures instinctive life pattern of Bees, living locally, and getting nourished by natures natural flora and rich biodiversity instead of the monoculture and existence of sugar based products rather than honey it’s natural food, and the millions of Bees from all parts of the USA mixing with each other, possibly spreading one problem to another.
    To foster a resident population of Bees, living all year round should provide for a more resistant Bees, but also to remove all Neonicotinoids from agriculture as Europe has forced the UK to accept a two year ban, as theses have proved harmful to man & Bee.
    Read the A PAN AP Factsheet on Neonicotinoids for greater clarity.
    I am a Natural Bee Keeper, only starting out with three colonies, having caught the swarms last year, and they all survived over winter, as we did not take their Honey.
    See http://www.gbac.org.uk and we stand against the harm that all these chemicals are doing to our pollinators and biodiversity.
    I believe that we should work with farmers to return back to the mixed farming culture, as with livestock, manure is produced for the land, and some of the crops are turned into soilage to feed the animals whilst producing milk & beef, so there is less reliance on the farmer to use chemicals, therefore protecting the habitats for all species to interact as nature intended, instead of the mass exterminations of all wildlife including the Bees.
    I have seen the devastation of the Minnessota Bees on returning from California on the 7 May 2013, the video is out there, where most of the old Mill Honey Bees started dying just after a farmer planted out
    Neonicotinoid Corn?
    The warnings are grave for mankind unless it starts to consider mother nature and all the biodiversity instead the power of the Dollar, you can’t eat a Bank-note, and we are what we eat!

  4. Corvus Rabiatus

    The sole reason why the natural bee population in Western Europe has drastically improved when compared with the rather dismal US picture in that sense, is that certain insecticides in Europe were first put on a moratorium and then eliminated from use.
    Sometimes a chemical solution can be too effective for our own good. The US would do well to follow the European example or face the consequences. Then again (tongue firmly planted in cheek) that might just be too un-American.

  5. Corvus Rabiatus

    You beat me to it Harry Watts and as a due to circumstances currently and reluctant Minnesota resident, I cannot agree with you more. As a locavore as much in location as well as in season, I support my Customer Supported Agriculture initiative in Wisconsin, where I can personally warrant and verify their organic and animal-(bees included)-friendly practices. Their bee-hives consist of two separate cavities, where one does not allow the queen to enter to deposit eggs into the honey-comb structure. Generally that cavity is between 15% and 30%, depending on the observed bee activity and estimated over-production by the bees.Some years are better than others and it bespeaks the wisdom of the farmer to treat his natural pollinators with tender and loving care.
    The fertilized cavity is always left to the bees. That way only a portion of the honey is harvested. Since the bees have a greater variety of nectar sources, their honey is vastly more flavourful than the homogenized commercially offered product. To me, who for various reasons (and not only by choice) does not consume any refined sugars, that is a very pleasant life-saver and one that I support by volunteering my time and effort for.
    As a professional cube-dwelling technologist, I had never dreamt that this this could be so intensely rewarding and educational as well as beneficial. So far, the bee-colonies of the CSA with which I have aligned myself, have bucked the rapidly declining US trend and their colonies have actually expanded and proliferated to the extend that the CSA can actually trade their surplus bee-capacity with other CSAs in the region.

  6. Chris

    Hand on face moment for roses first comment! Insects definitly are animals last time I checked

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