Bumblebee and solitary bee pollinators contribute more than honey bees

March 14, 2012

in Bumblebees and their ecology, Gardening For Wildlife, Red mason solitary bees, Solitary Bee Observation Box

Wild pollinators contribute more than honeybees

When I talk to school children about bees most of them mention honey bees making honey. None have mentioned bumblebees or solitary bees. This is a shame because researchers have shown that bumblebees and solitary bees, (around 250 species in the UK) are far more important pollinators of our vegetables and fruits than honey bees. Strawberries, apples, pears, blackberries and more are just a few to mention that our wild pollinators pollinate. The main thing in many peoples mind is the honey produced by honey bees and like wild bees, their pollination contribution rarely is mentioned or appreciated by many people.

The following research has been copied directly and unedited from the Planet Earth web site, (Natural Environment Research Council).

Wild pollinators contribute more than honeybees

15 June 2011, by Tamera Jones

Bumblebees, solitary bees and other wild pollinating insects are much more important for pollinating UK crops than previously thought, say researchers.

Honey bee
Honey bee.

They found that honeybee populations have nose-dived so dramatically in recent years that they can only do half as much pollination as they did in the early 1980s.

Where honeybees used to provide around 70 per cent of the UK’s pollination needs they now only pollinate a third. At worst, that figure could well be more like 10 to 15 per cent.

Paradoxically over the last 20 years, the proportion of UK crops that rely on insects for pollination has risen from just under 8 per cent in the early 1980s to 20 per cent in 2007. And over the same period, yields of insect-pollinated crops, which include oil seed rape and field bean, have gone up by 54 per cent.

This means that honeybees can’t be solely responsible, or aren’t the only important pollinator.

So if honeybees aren’t pollinating the crops, what is? The researchers think that other important pollinating insects, such as bumblebees, hoverflies and solitary bees must be making up the shortfall.

‘Our finding suggests that wild insect pollinators make a much bigger contribution to UK crop pollination than previously thought,’ says Tom Breeze from the University of Reading, lead author of the study.

£400 million per year

Insect pollination is estimated to be worth around £400 million per year to UK crop agriculture. And until now, people have widely assumed that honeybees are the most important pollinators, with a figure of around 90 per cent of pollination services coming from honeybees bandied around.

‘We had an inclination that this wasn’t an accurate figure at all,’ says Breeze. ‘Honeybees have been in decline for years, so it didn’t make sense.’

Indeed, there is a complete absence of large scale research that backs up the assumption that honeybees are the main pollinators.

So Breeze and colleagues from the University of Reading set out to learn how important insect-pollinated crops are to UK agriculture and – using data from an earlier study – to figure out the real contribution from honeybees.

This is the first time anyone has looked at the contribution from both honeybees and other pollinators on such a grand scale.

‘There was a seminal study in 2006 which found that you get the best pollination, best yields and best fruit when you have both wild pollinators and honeybees.’
Tom Breeze, University of Reading

‘Bumblebees, hoverflies and red mason bees are key wild pollinators, but there are at least 250 bee species alone in the UK, which we thought almost certainly contribute more than honeybees do,’ Breeze says.

Although Breeze and his colleagues found that honeybees don’t provide the same level of service that other species do, they point out that it’s not one pollinator or the other that’s important; both types are crucial.

‘There was a seminal study in 2006 which found that you get the best pollination, best yields and best fruit when you have both wild pollinators and honeybees,’ says Breeze.

He says the next step for this research is to do the same thing on a Europe-wide scale to compare different countries with the situation in the UK and to go into fields to see which pollinators are pollinating.

‘This study challenges the long held beliefs surrounding the importance of honeybees as the major pollinators and could potentially result in a paradigm shift in people’s thinking,’ says Science and Innovation Manager Dr Andrew Impey from the Natural Environment Research Council.

“All my articles and videos, available free, are funded by my  teaching and sales of award winning bumblebee nest boxessolitary bee boxes,  and wormeries. Please help by spreading the word and forwarding this link to your friends and colleagues. http://nurturing-nature.co.uk  Thank you” George Pilkington


T.D. Breeze, A.P. Bailey, K.G. Balcombe and S.G. Potts, Pollination services in the UK: How important are honeybees?, Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, published online 20 May 2011, doi:10.1016/j.agee.2011.03.020

See my new Registered Design award winning solitary bee box and bumblebee nest box both of which are radical, practical and educational, offering them a safer nesting environment in which you can observe the bees.

For more information about solitary bees and wasps visit BWARS

For more bumblebee information and to help save bumblebees join the Bumblebee Conservation Trust at Stirling University

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul B March 26, 2013 at 11:54 pm

Great to read this and your summary of it George.
Interesting that Red Mason bees were specifically cited. I understand that they can be more prolific in the early stages of spring when bumble-bees are just building up their colonies, but bumble-bees probably take-over the bulk of the pollination later on.
Will add this study to my prized and accumulating set of references and votes for solitary bees.
Cheers, Paul.


nurturingnature March 29, 2013 at 9:43 pm

My pleasure Paul. I have loads more, if you want me to send you some let me know which area interests you and I will see what I have to send to you. Cheers George


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