The UK faces a food security catastrophe because of its very low numbers of honeybee colonies, which provide an essential service in pollinating many crops, scientists warned on Wednesday.
New research reveals that honeybees provide just a quarter of the pollination needed in the UK, the second lowest level among 41 European countries. Furthermore, the controversial rise of biofuels in Europe is driving up the need for pollination five times faster than the rise in honeybee numbers. The research suggests an increasing reliance on wild pollinators, such as bumblebees and hoverflies, whose diversity is in decline.
"We face a catastrophe in future years unless we act now," said Professor Simon Potts, at the University of Reading, who led the research. "Wild pollinators need greater protection. They are the unsung heroes of the countryside, providing a critical link in the food chain for humans and doing work for free that would otherwise cost British farmers £1.8bn to replace."
The study, published in the journal PLoS One, found that Europe has 13 million less managed honeybee colonies than would be needed to properly pollinate all its crops, equivalent to 7 billion individual bees. Across the continent, honeybees provided just two-thirds of the pollination but the situation in the UK was particularly stark, with only Moldova having a bigger bee deficit. Many major agricultural nations, including France, Italy and Germany, had too few honeybees to provide all the pollination services.
Potts warned that an increasing reliance on wild pollinators was particularly dangerous given that their health is not being monitored and that too little is being done to protect them. "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 a potential food security crisis," he said.
The poor situation in the UK is partly due to a big decline in honeybees in recent decades. More recently, cereal crops that are wind-pollinated have increasingly been replaced by biofuel crops like oil seed rape which require insect pollination to give full yields. Elsewhere in Europe, biofuel demand has increased sunflower production, another crop that needs insect pollination. Overall, production of oil seed crops has risen by almost 20% from 2005-2010 in Europe. Biofuels produced from edible crops have already become controversial because of links to rises in food prices and suggestions that some are just as polluting as the fossil fuels they replace.
"The biofuel policy has gone through without anyone thinking about the impacts on pollination," said Tom Breeze, another of the research team at Reading.
Over 75% of all food crops require pollination and concern has mounted in recent years about the role of pesticides, habitat loss and disease in declining honeybee numbers and suspected losses of wild pollinators. In December, a two-year ban began across the Europe Union on widely used insecticides that have been linked to serious harm in bees. The UKunsuccessfully opposed the ban, arguing there was insufficient evidence for it.