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Honeybee Declines Cause Huge Risk to EU Crops

Honeybee Declines Cause Huge Risk to EU Crops

09 January 2014

ANALYSIS - New research has highlighted the huge risk to crops due to diminishing honeybee populations across Europe, writes Gemma Hyland.

Scientists believe that a boom in biofuels has sparked a massive increase in the need for pollination.

The deficiency is especially notable in the UK, where research suggests there is only a quarter of the required honeybee population.

These findings raise concerns about the capacity of many countries to cope with major losses of wild pollinators.

Although these findings are unsurprising, many may be alarmed by the statistics revealed by Plos One.

Both pesticide use and disease have been blamed in recent years for the declines.

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

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 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 added: "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 £1.8 billion 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 £37 million 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. 

Gemma Hyland, Editor

Gemma Hyland, Editor

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