Urban pollinators for urban agriculture (and horticulture!)


Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about urban pollinators, that is to say bees, hoverflies, butterflies, and other animals, living and foraging in towns and cities.  As I recounted in my recent post about the National Pollinator Strategy seminar at Westminster, Jane Memmott presented some of the first data from the Urban Pollinators Initiative which is looking very interesting.  At the same time, Muzafar Hussain has submitted the first manuscript from his PhD study of urban solitary bees in Northampton, and will hopefully be defending his thesis early next year.  More recently I was asked to examine the PhD thesis of  Rob Fowler at the University of Birmingham, whose focus has been on pollinators across an urban-rural gradient.  Rob did very well and I look forward to seeing his work published.

Interesting though all this work is, it’s largely being done outside the context of crop pollination per se, focusing mainly on the identity and abundance of these urban pollinators.  It’s timely, therefore that a study has just been published by Thebo et al. in the journal Environmental Research Letters entitled  “Global assessment of urban and peri-urban agriculture: irrigated and rainfed croplands” which gives the first comprehensive figures on the extent of agriculture in and around the world’s large towns and cities.  The paper is open-access so you can read its findings for yourself, but the main message is that urban agriculture is more extensive and important than previously assumed, and there are significant implications for food security and water resources.

The research has (justifiably) received quite a lot of publicity in the media, for example on the BBC News website, and is a great contribution to a still limited field of study.  One aspect jumped out at me though; when discussing the limitations of their methods the authors state that: “the scale and methods used……are not structured to capture very small, spatially dispersed areas of urban croplands”.  In other words, urban gardens and allotments are not included in this assessment.  In the UK at least this is a significant limitation as we know that urban fruit and vegetable growing is widespread, though as far as I’m aware there’s no published figures on the volume and value of this local horticulture of food crops.

Which brings us back to urban pollinators: a significant fraction of these crops (large-scale and local garden) requires pollination by insects.  As I reported back in July, in our own urban garden this includes at least 15 crops (strawberries, apples, greengages, cherries, blackcurrants, squashes, courgettes, blackberries, fennel, runner beans, french beans, passion fruit, tomatoes, raspberries, and radish pods).  An integrated study of urban agriculture/horticulture in the context of pollinator diversity and abundance would be a great piece of research and is long overdue.


9 thoughts on “Urban pollinators for urban agriculture (and horticulture!)

  1. steve hawkins

    Hi Jeff,

    Always interesting to read your blogs via the WT’s FB posts.

    Though I’m not an economist, it strikes me that, because we are not allowed to sell stuff from our gardens and allotments, not only would it not count towards the ‘economic growth’, that all government agencies are compelled to promote, but it would actually be seen as a negative to growth by reducing the spend on commercial foods. Looking at it like that, it starts to be no surprise that our ‘protected’ allotments, have so easily been handed over to developers by successive secretaries of state refusing to call in applications.

    I frequently listen to the excellent podcasts by Dickson Despommier, on parasitism, and urban agriculture. He is primarily concerned with high tec ‘vertical farms’, which would be a form that would be part of the urban economy. If produce from allotments and gardens could, somehow be brought into the trade loop–perhaps by even setting up local coops, or even getting the supermarkets to start collections, along with their home deliveries of other shopping: they could drop off groceries and pick up garden produce.

    Once the supermarkets were involved, the value of gardens and allotments would become part of economic growth AND it would then become much easier to assess the value of the pollinators in our gardens.

    Has to be worth a try. Could be an instant and painless boost to ‘growth’ in more ways than one; provide a mechanism for local food growth and distribution using a delivery system that wastes the productivity that a laden return journey would give; protects our allotments and gardens from development by giving them a positive economic value of their own, rather than just the wellbeing value that is currently attached. And probably much more when you start to think about it.

    I think it would only take a small change in the law, to get allotment and garden produce out into the market, and, the imagination of a forward thinking supermarket chain, could rapidly mobilise our so far, negatively valued, urban produce: and our pollinators.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Hi Steve,

      Thanks for your comments, some interesting ideas there. I was unsure of the legal position with regards to selling garden and allotment produce so I did a little digging and found this:


      These schemes seem to have some of the qualities that you describe, though they are small scale at the moment. I also know that some of the fruit and veg on small at Northampton market and in some local green grocers is sourced from gardens and allotments.

      But even food grown and consumed at home could, in another sense, be seen as having a positive impact on the economy. Money not spent on food can be saved or spent on other things.

      I’ll check out the podcasts you mention, sounds interesting.

      All the best,


      1. steve hawkins

        Hi Jeff,

        Thank you for getting back to me, on this, and apologies for being so behind in thanking you. I’m afraid that I’m long term sick, and on my back most of the time, so I get a long way behind from time to time when dreaded ‘benefits’ matters need dealing with first!

        I’m thus, a bit of a spectator on the wildlife side of things, these days, but experiencing some of what rubs off in blogs like yours and in the various posts from the Trusts, BSBI etc. is a little compensation! (I used to regularly go out with Trevor James’ Flora Group, and Alan Outen’s Fungus groups, but I’ve got rather out of touch in the last few years, as the NHS has so badly let me down. I know Alan, had similar trouble at one time–I’ve not heard from him lately, so I do hope he’s still out there.).

        Thanks for the Guardian link. This rather took me back, too, because I used to run a small organic veg box scheme, and I was in regular contact with Anthony, at BigBarn, when he was just setting it up. Very good to see that it is still going strong.

        Despite the ambivalent position on allotment produce, it does rather look as though plenty of people have thought of imaginative ways round the situation; so, what is, now, really needed, is for someone to do some serious research on the value of the food and other garden and allotment produce, economy: and, indeed, an assessment of its full potential as an under-recognised part of the battle to meet the nation’s food needs, sustainably. A good report, could go some way towards protecting our remaining gardens and allotments from speculative, or otherwise misguided, development. They could factor in the land’s water absorbing/flood reducing, possibilities too.

        Seems to me that it is good publicity, and, possibly, the resources of one of the big supermarket chains, to get it all working together (Though: it seems odd to be talking of the possible advantages of supermarkets: they do, after all, already have the distribution networks and computer tracking/etc. systems in place.).

        Incidentally, Dickson Despommier, is into ‘vertical farming’ in a big way. It seemed a bit too high tech and soulless, an idea, to be growing food in skyscrapers, to me; and, I couldn’t see how it could really be energetically viable; but, if it really could take off in big cities, then it might pay off, by keeping all the sterile environments in city food factories, and leaving the countryside for less, intensive methods, more suited to natural conditions. When you think about it, we’ve been trying to run our fields and gardens, as if they were just very big rooms in our homes, from which all bugs and ‘outdoors things’ must be excluded. Bringing them fully under control, indoors, could keep the sterile environments and precisely measured water and nutrients, in a closed cycle, that would reduce pollution and save water, and many other things–like transport costs–, while leaving more of the outdoors for wildlife and nature sensitive uses.

        Makes you think.


        All the best,


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