Thank the insects for Christmas (REBLOG)


It’s become a tradition (ok, only for the past two years, but a tradition has to start somewhere!) for me to post a version of this festive blog entry.  I’ve updated the stats for 2013.  Hope you enjoy it.

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 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 commercial edible crops, and does not include those we grow in our gardens and allotments.  It also does not take account of ornamental crops such as mistletoe and holly, both of which are dioecious species, which is to say that individuals are either male or female, rather than hermaphrodite as are most plants.  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 last year I had a conversation with Jonathan Briggs over at Mistletoe Matters and he told 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 of these non-food crops actually is.  But some back-of-the-red-and-gold-Christmas-lunch-napkin calculations can at least give us an insight.  Auction reports for 2013  show that on average the best quality berried holly was selling for £2.50 per kg whilst equivalent quality holly without berries sold for only 80p per kg.  In other words, pollination by insects increases the value of that crop by more than 300%!   Similarly the high quality mistletoe averaged £1.20 per kg, whilst the second grade stuff was only 40p per kg.  And the best holly wreaths (presumably with berries!) were averaging £7.00 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 £20 range, depending on how much you want.  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 tens 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 in 2012, that year was 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 has for many years been 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 completed this year) and urban centres (ongoing PhD work by Muzafar Hussain).  There’s also the work completed a few years ago by Sam Tarrant and Lutfor Rahman on pollinator (and other) biodiversity on restored landfill sites.   Plus research that’s recently 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 our Biodiversity Index, 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 garden bug sprays for 2014 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!

9 thoughts on “Thank the insects for Christmas (REBLOG)

  1. solarbeez

    I’m doing my level best to grow bee-loving plants. I just read about the nectar properties of echium at Melissa Garden in California…
    “The most unusual feature of Echium vulgare is the protection of the nectar inside the flower from vaporization (when it’s hot) or flushing away (when it rains). It is why almost for 2 months this plant is a stable source of nectar for bees. Additionally this plant produces nectar throughout the day unlike most plants which produce nectar for a short period of time. If the bees have a good access to Echium they can collect between 12-20 lbs of nectar a day.”

    I’ve got about 10 plants now that will grow 10 feet (3 meters) tall in the spring…IF I can keep them from getting ‘frosted’ in our unseasonably cold weather. Last year I had only one echium, but it was frequented by bees from mid May until early September. (A wonderful bee-loving plant)

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks for your comment. Are you sure it’s Echium vulgare you’re growing? That’s a much shorter plant – usually less than 3 feet in height. Also it’s frost hardy. From your description it sounds more like one of the Canary Island Echiums, perhaps Echium wildprettii or E. pininana, or one of the cultivated hybrids.

      I’ve seen these growing wild in the Canary Islands and they are magnificent plants and very popular with bees, both native and managed honey bees.

      1. solarbeez

        Uh, you’re very observant. Mine are definitely NOT frost hardy (I lost a bunch in the sub-freezing night temps we had last week.) I think mine are Echium Pininana, (Tower of Jewels?). All my transplants came from the one I had last year.
        Do you think the nectar properties would be much different from e. vulgare?
        I see by your bio that you’re an expert in plants and pollinators, would you mind if I ask questions from time to time?

      2. jeffollerton Post author

        Judging by the picture I think it could be a hybrid between E. pininana and E. wildpretii sometimes referred to as “Pink Fountain” – see

        “Tower of Jewels” usually refers to pure E. wildpretii. This is a good example of the pitfalls of using common names to refer to plants, because they mean different things to different people: an old post of mine might be of interest in this regard –

        Hard to know if the nectar characteristics of your plants are similar to E. vulgare without testing them. But E. wildpretii is at least part bird pollinated and has a relatively low sugar concentration (around 15%) which is typical of many bird pollinated plants – see:

        So if your hybrids have inherited this characteristic, the amount of sugar available per flower could be lower than for bee pollinated E. vulgare. But then there are many, many more flowers for the bees to obtain nectar from!

        Happy for you to ask questions, but no guarantee that I can answer them 🙂

  2. solarbeez

    We have read about the trouble with getting the almond orchards pollinated. The bees must be trucked from all over the US and still there’s not enough pollinators. The price of almonds is going up because consumer demand has gone up while supply is going down.
    We have read about how Mason bees can out-pollinate honeybees. Why don’t the almond growers use Mason bees? The Masons are usually done by mid June around here, so I guess it would depend on when the almond trees need to be pollinated.

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