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 oil crops, such as oilseed rape and sunflowers, and fruit.
Researchers, led by Professor Simon Potts at the University of Reading, compared the numbers of active beehives 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 Britain’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 – equivalent to around 7 billion bees.
The findings suggest that agriculture in many countries is 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 yesterday (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 Biological Conservation, showing that wild pollinators such as bumblebees and solitary bees are just as effective pollinators of oilseed rape as honeybees.
Professor Simon Potts said: “We face a catastrophe in future years unless we act now. 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.
“There is a growing disconnection between agricultural and environmental policies across Europe. Farmers are encouraged to grow oil crops, yet there is not enough joined-up thinking about how to help the insects that will pollinate 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.”
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.