New Projects to Address Decline of Honeybees and Other Insect Pollinators

A small tortoiseshell butterfly on a mint plant.
Butterflies, along with other insect pollinators, are essential to agriculture.
Jane Memmott, University of Bristol

Nine projects worth a total of up to £10m from the Insect Pollinators Initiative were announced for National Insect Week, June 21st to 27th, 2010. These projects will explore the causes and consequences of threats to insect pollinators and ask questions about the decline of honeybees and other pollinating insects over recent years.

The aim is to inform the development of mitigation strategies that will ensure that the pollination of agricultural and horticultural crops is protected and biodiversity in natural ecosystems is maintained.

What is clear at present is that there is no one factor causing the problem. The causes of pollinator declines are likely to be complex and involve interactions between pollinators, the environment, and the pests and diseases that affect these insects.

Insects pollinate around a third of the agricultural crops grown globally and the total loss of insect pollinators could cost up to £440m per year in the UK (about 13% of the UK’s income from farming). Because of the vital role pollinating insects play it is absolutely crucial that we generate knowledge that can be applied to strategies aimed at reversing the decline.

The Insect Pollinators Initiative is a joint initiative from the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Scottish Government, and the Wellcome Trust, and is funded under the auspices of the Living With Environmental Change partnership.

The projects will look at different aspects of the decline of insect pollinators. Some will focus on specific species and/or diseases; others will look more broadly at factors affecting the health and survival of some or all pollinating insects. The initiative brings together researchers from many disciplines including ecology, molecular biology, mathematics, and computing.

Professor Andrew Watkinson, Director of the Living With Environmental Change programme, said, “To tackle a complex problem like the decline of pollinating insects, where there are a number of potential causes, requires wide-ranging research. That is why it is so important that a number of funding organisations have come together in this initiative to provide the essential breadth and critical mass of research that would not be possible if the individual funders worked in isolation.”

“It has also allowed us to bring in new skills in gene sequencing and epidemiological modelling with the expertise that already exists in the pollinator research community. I am delighted to see the broad and innovative range of projects being funded.”

Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive, said, “The UK leads the world in biology, and we have a strong community ready and able to tackle important social and economic issues that scientific research can help address. To this end it is a priority for BBSRC to fund bioscience research that will contribute to meeting the challenge of feeding a global population set to reach nine billion by 2050.”

“The Insect Pollinators Initiative supports our aim to fund high quality research across BBSRC’s scientific remit that will inform sustainable food production in the future. With such a complex problem, multidisciplinary and systems-based approaches will be extremely valuable and BBSRC’s community is well placed to provide the necessary expertise to make this happen. Not only this, but these projects will also generate UK-based knowledge, skills and technical innovation in areas as diverse as genetics, virology, ecology and mathematical modelling.”

Defra minister Lord Henley said, “Defra takes the health of Britain’s insect pollinators, including bees, butterflies and moths, very seriously, as they play an essential role in putting food on our tables through the pollination of many vital crops. This initiative will help some of our world-class researchers to identify why bee numbers are declining, and that will help us to take the right action to help.”

“It is crucial we all work together on this and the biggest challenge will be to better understand the complex relationships between biological and environmental factors that affect pollinators’ health and lifespan.”

Professor Alan Thorpe, NERC Chief Executive, said, “We can take for granted the variety of vegetables, fruits and flowers that we can enjoy every day but some of the insect pollinators on which they rely are in serious decline. Understanding the complexities of environmental ecosystems is a priority that will help to ensure the survival of pollinators and the benefits they provide.”

“This new research will give us vital knowledge about the effect changing environments, habitats and emerging diseases have on the health and wellbeing of these insects. As part of the Living With Environmental Change initiative, the essential multidisciplinary research and policy partnership has been created to find solutions to this critical problem.”

Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs Richard Lochhead said, “Insect pollinators are an essential part of agriculture and landscape in Scotland. Their place in maintaining the biodiversity of our countryside is crucial. In pollinating crops and plants, such as the £68m soft fruit industry, they have a valuable role in the economy as well as the fruits of their activities supporting a wide range of other species.”

“As the impact of environmental change unfolds we must learn and understand more about the threats faced by these insects because they are so important to us. I am, therefore, delighted that we have been able to invest in this wide ranging programme of research which will complement the Scottish Government’s own work on the Bee Health Strategy.”

Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, said, “The decline in the populations of bees and other pollinators could have a devastating effect on our environment, and this will almost certainly have a serious impact on our health and wellbeing. Understanding what is causing this decline is an urgent challenge facing the scientific community and it is important we work across disciplines to find ways that it can be reversed.”

Projects funded under the initiative are:

  • Sustainable pollination services for UK crops. Dr Koos Biesmeijer, University of Leeds.
  • Modelling systems for managing bee disease: the epidemiology of European Foulbrood. Dr Giles Budge, Food & Environment Research Agency.
  • Investigating the impact of habitat structure on queen and worker bumblebees in the field. Dr Claire Carvell, NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.
  • An investigation into the synergistic impact of sublethal exposure to industrial chemicals on the learning capacity and performance of bees. Dr Chris Connolly, University of Dundee.
  • Linking agriculture and land use change to pollinator populations. Professor Bill Kunin, University of Leeds.
  • Urban pollinators: their ecology and conservation. Professor Jane Memmott, University of Bristol.
  • Impact and mitigation of emergent diseases on major UK insect pollinators. Dr Robert Paxton, Queen’s University of Belfast.
  • Unravelling the impact of the mite Varroa destructor on the interaction between the honeybee and its viruses. Dr Eugene Ryabov, University of Warwick.
  • Can bees meet their nutritional needs in the current UK landscape? Dr Geraldine Wright, Newcastle University.

BBSRC annually invests around £470m in a wide range of research. Insect Pollinators Initiative projects support BBSRC’s aim to fund high quality research that underpins future food security. Research in areas as diverse as the genetics of disease susceptibility in honeybees through to the role of pollinating insects in whole farm systems, will help to provide a secure supply of insect pollinated crops in the future.

Defra funds a bee health programme to protect honey bees from diseases and pests. It also helps fund the National Bee Unit, which carries out research and development to support beekeepers, farmers, and growers. Defra recognises that bees, butterflies and other insects are vital for the pollination of agricultural and horticultural crops and wild plants, and so are crucial to the UK’s wider biodiversity, environment and food security interests.

NERC is the UK’s main agency for funding and managing world-class research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. It co-ordinates some of the world’s most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on earth, and much more.

The Scottish Government is the devolved legislature in Scotland with responsibility for bee health, biodiversity and agriculture. SG has a commitment to protect and improve the health of honey bees, and to a sustainable natural environment as a result of a thriving and healthy population of pollinators.

The Wellcome Trust is a global charity dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust’s breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests.

Living With Environmental Change aims to optimise the coherence and effectiveness of UK environmental research funding and ensure government, business and society have the foresight, knowledge and tools to mitigate, adapt to and capitalise on environmental change.