Protecting our pollinators

Honey bee approaching a blossoming cherry tree -insects such as these are crucial to pollination

Honey bee approaching a blossoming cherry tree -insects such as these are crucial to pollination - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

July is a-buzz with insects collecting nectar and thereby pollinating plants. Liz Hamilton of Campaign to Protect Rural England Herfordshire says we need to preserve insect habitats and create new ones – for our own sakes

The delights of the July countryside include the murmur of insects in fields, verges and hedgerows. Take a closer look and you might find bees, hoverflies, beetles, flies, moths and butterflies. These small creatures are fascinating to watch as they move from flower to flower in search of pollen and nectar. They are also vital to the production of many food crops.

Wind-pollinated plants include grasses, trees such as oak, birch and ash, and commercial cereals like wheat, barley and maize. These have drab but large flowers, often standing up in stiff spikes or hanging down as tassels or catkins to trap wind-borne pollen.

Insect-pollinated plants, including many shrubs and trees, tend to attract pollinating insects with bright, conspicuous and scented flowers. In Britain, around 1,500 insect species are known to act as pollinators, moving pollen between flowers and so initiating seed and fruit development. Among them are more than 260 species of bees, including the honeybee, more than 20 bumblebee species and numerous types of solitary bee which, as their name implies, live alone in walls or old wood or underground. Bees eat pollen and nectar and feed their young on the same diet, and are especially well-adapted to carrying pollen on their bodies.

When honeybee numbers fell sharply in Britain and elsewhere at the end of the 20th century, there were concerns for human food supplies. It has been estimated that as much as one-third of global food production depends on insect pollination. Last year the UK government-produced National Pollinator Strategy pointed out that honeybee numbers in the UK have now recovered, partly due to the growth in the number of beekeepers. Nonetheless, documents supporting the strategy emphasise how little is known about the ecology and abundance of many wild pollinating insects.

We do know however that some bumblebee, butterfly and moth species have become scarcer in recent years. The reasons for this include habitat loss and fragmentation due to urban development and more intensive land management. Flower-rich grassland, one of the most important habitats for insects, has declined dramatically in the past 75 years. In Hertfordshire in 1934 for example, 75,000 hectares of unimproved meadow land were recorded, mainly managed for hay. Today there are fewer than 1,000 hectares of similar species-rich pasture.

We need to protect remaining insect habitats and create new ones. Widespread decline in pollinators would severely affect the production of many types of fruit and vegetables - healthy foods which we are encouraged to eat. Hertfordshire used to be renowned for its orchards, of apples and cherries in particular, and although these have declined dramatically there has recently been a revival of interest in orchards, including community initiatives like the orchards at Codicote and Tewin. Their future could be in jeopardy and hedgerow fruit might also become scarce.

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Three quarters of Britain’s flowering plant species are insect-pollinated. If pollinators were to decline, many plant species which disperse seeds and fruits to maintain their populations, often on an annual basis, would also be under threat. Many other species depend on these seeds and fruits for food, and the countryside would become a duller and less diverse place without them.

The National Pollinator Strategy calls on everyone to promote pollinator habitats, including farmers and major landowners like the National Trust and the Forestry Commission. Many farmers have already created wildflower margins around field edges in recent years. Other spaces could become more attractive habitats for insects, in towns as well as the countryside, on roofs and walls as well as the ground.

The strategy calls for the adoption of alternatives to using insecticides wherever possible: these include biological control of insect pests. Where there is no alternative and if crop production would otherwise be jeopardised, the strategy advocates careful, targeted insecticide use.

Gardeners can play their part in providing pollinator habitats. Although individual gardens may be small, taken together they form a significant land area –British private gardens are estimated to cover around 270,000 hectares, more than one and a half times the area of Hertfordshire.

Five tips for creating pollinator-friendly gardens

• Grow insect-friendly flowers, those which produce abundant nectar will often be labelled in nurseries and garden centres. Cottage garden perennials are often rich in nectar.

• Cut the grass less often and enjoy the resulting flowers such as dandelions and white clover.

• Leave areas to develop naturally.

• Create a log pile, and some bare ground: places where insects can nest and hibernate.

• Don’t use pesticides. Instead, encourage birds into your garden by putting up nest boxes: these will help to keep insect pests like aphids under control.