Thank the insects for Christmas (reduce, reuse, recycle part 2)

2012-11-26 15.38.04

The university term has drawn to a close in a flurry of activity as we complete our pre-Christmas teaching and assessments, and the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences conducted a successful five-yearly Periodic Subject Review of its degree programmes.  I’m conscious that some of the things I wanted to write about since my last blog entry have slipped past without action, including a week that was bookended by visits with students to iconic localities on the biodiversity and conservation map.  These were a Monday trip to the Darwin Centre of the Natural History Museum in London with students on my final year Biodiversity and Conservation module; followed by a Friday visit to Wicken Fen, arranged by my colleague Janet Jackson for second year students on her Habitat Ecology and Management module.  Both great days away from the lecture room, if for different reasons.

At the Natural History Museum we looked at the insect research collections, behind the scenes where the public does not normally venture.  Wicken Fen, on the other hand, is open to all and we met birders and walkers as we toured the site.  I kept a tally of the number of bird species we identified and the final count was 29 (30 if you include the chickens being kept in a back garden close to the visitor centre).  It would have been impossible to make a meaningful species count  at the Musuem as we were overwhelmed by the statistics presented by the curators:  85,000 butterfly and moth specimens in the Lepidoptera section, 3 to 4 million specimens of true flies (Diptera).  On it went; wonderful diversity and an incredible scientific resource.

Which brings me neatly to the main topic of this entry: the importance of insects at Christmas!  I’ve mentioned before that one of the intentions of this blog was to reuse some of the writing I’ve done over the years in various fora, sometimes updating and re-casting it ro reflect recent activities or events (hence the “reduce, reuse, recycle” epithet).  The publication this month of the final report of the Government-sponsored workshop Insect Pollinators: Linking Research and Policy in which I was involved has prompted me to modify and re-post an entry that first appeared on the University of Northampton’s blog at this time last year.

The social and economic news is not great, global poverty is on the increase even in the richest countries and the range of human-influenced assaults on the natural environment seems to be escalating on a weekly basis.  But at least it’s Christmas!  A time to relax and enjoy ourselves, to share time with family and friends, and to unwind during the cold and gloom of winter.  Whatever your faith, or lack of it, Christmas should be about taking a break and reflecting on the year that has passed.  We’re helped in that respect by the ceremonial seasonal trimmings: the Christmas tree, strings of flashing lights, baubles and tinsel.  So while you’re kissing a loved one under the mistletoe, admiring that glossy holly wreath, or tucking into your Christmas dinner, spare a thought for the insects.

What in Saint Nicholas’s name”  you are asking ”have insects got to do with Christmas?!”  Well, like the turkey, we’d be stuffed without them:  they play an essential part in providing us with the things we associate with the Christmas.  If we had no flies, wasps, bees and other bugs acting as pollinators there’d be no berries on your mistletoe or your holly.  Kissing and admiring would be a less festive affair and that’s just for starters.  These insects also pollinate many of the vegetables, herbs and spices on your plate, as well as some of the forage that went to fatten your roast bird or tender joint of meat.   Not to forget much of what went into the nut roast that’s feeding the vegetarian relatives.

The economic value of insect pollination in the UK was estimated by the recent National Ecosystem Assessment to be about £430 million per year .  In fact this is a huge under valuation because the labour costs alone of paying people to hand pollinate those crops would run into billions of pounds.  This sounds far fetched but it’s already happening to fruit crops in parts of China.  The answer is to encourage wild insects, not artificially  managed honey bees, because collectively the former are far more abundant, and often more effective, as pollinators.  Their diversity is an insurance against losing any one species in the future.

The NEA’s valuation is also too low because it only deals with edible crops.  Mistletoe and holly are both dioecious species, which is to say that individual plants are either male or female, as is the case with most animals.  This means that the plants cannot self pollinate and insects are absolutely vital to their reproduction and to the production of the decorative berries we so value (a holly wreath without berries is just a big spiky doughnut, in my opinion).  Whilst researching the economic value of the annual mistletoe and holly crops for this blog posting I’ve been having a conversation with Jonathan Briggs over at Mistletoe Matters and he tells me that “the mistletoe trade in Britain is entirely unregulated and not documented in any tangible way” and the same is true of holly.  We therefore have no idea what the economic value actually is.  But some back-of-the-red-and-gold-Christmas-lunch-napkin calculations can at least give us an insight.  Auction reports this year  show that on average the best quality berried holly was selling for £2.50 per kg whilst equivalent quality holly without berries cost only 75p per kg.  In other words, pollination by insects increases the value of that crop by over 300%.   Similarly the high quality mistletoe averaged 80p per kg, whilst the second grade stuff was only 20p per kg.  And the best holly wreaths (presumably with berries!) were averaging £3.40 each.  These are wholesale prices, of course; retail cost to the customer is much greater.  A decent holly wreath will set you back between £15 and £30 whilst online shopping for mistletoe is in the £5 to £15 bracket.  The national census of 2011 shows us that there are 23.4 million households in England and Wales, plus there are 2.36 million in Scotland and 0.70 million in Northern Ireland.  Let’s round it down and say there’s 26 million households in the whole of the UK.  Let’s also be very conservative and estimate that only 5% of those households bought one holly wreath and some mistletoe at a total cost of £20.  Multiply that by the small proportion of households buying these festive crops and you arrive at a figure of about £26.5 million!  And that doesn’t include non-household use in shops, offices and businesses.  So there you have it: an industry worth a few 10s of millions (at least) all being ultimately supported by insects.

With pollination, timing is everything, and Jonathan also made the point that spring flowering mistletoe and holly can be important early nectar sources for insects.  Therefore despite the poor  summer weather, this year has been a good one for mistletoe berries because the pollination happened before the heavy rains began.  Despite being quite common plants, rather little research has been done on either holly or mistletoe pollination in the UK and it would make for an interesting student project.

The Landscape and Biodiversity Research Group here at the university is playing its part by working to understand the ecology of plants and pollinators, and how to best conserve them.  In this blog I’ve referred a few times to some ongoing projects researching how the wider landscape is supporting pollinators in habitats such as country house gardens   (Hilary Erenler’s PhD work which she’s currently writing up) and urban centres (ongoing PhD work by Muzafar Hussain).  There’s also the recently completed work by Sam Tarrant and Lutfor Rahman on pollinator (and other) biodiversity on restored landfill sites.   Plus work that’s only just started by Kat Harrold on how whole landscapes support pollinators in the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area. This is all part of a broader programme of research into the conservation of biodiversity in our region and beyond, including a contribution to the Shared Enterprise Empowering Delivery (SEED) sustainability project.   Biodiversity matters and its importance to our society is being increasingly recognised by government, business and the public.

So if you make one New Year’s resolution on the 31st December, let it be that you will put away your bug sprays for 2013 and learn to love the insects (even wasps!) who give us so much and help to support our economy in a very real way.  It costs us nothing; all we need to give them is well managed, diverse, unpolluted habitats in which to live.

Have a great Christmas everyone!

1 thought on “Thank the insects for Christmas (reduce, reuse, recycle part 2)

  1. Pingback: Waxwing winter | Jeff Ollerton

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