Category Archives: Honey bees

Claims that only 10% – and not 75% – of crops are pollinator dependent are misleading and dishonest

Earlier this week the Genetic Literacy Project site posted an essay entitled ‘10% — not 75% — of crops pollinator-dependent: Our World in Data debunks claims that global food supply is imminently endangered by ‘disappearing’ insects‘. That click-bait title is hugely misleading, some of the purported ‘facts’ are incorrect, and indeed the whole thing reeks of dishonesty and bad faith.

First the misleading title. This ‘debunks’ claim actually compares two different things: 75% of CROPS being dependent on pollinators versus 10% of crop YIELD. However, even if we focus on the 10% claim, a small increase in yield can be the difference between profit and bankruptcy for small-scale farmers. And most of the world’s farmers are small-scale and living on the borderline between loss and break-even. In addition, there’s no acknowledgement of the food production from home gardens, allotments, and community gardens, which is significant but largely unquantified.

Next, by focusing on yield and comparing, say, wind-pollinated wheat with insect-pollinated apples, the article takes no account of the fact that many of these crops that depend to some extent on pollinators mainly provide essential vitamins and minerals – not calories – to diets. When I tweeted about this earlier in the week, one person commented that they describe the insect-pollinated foods as ‘an important source of flavour and colour in our diets, rice and wheat are all well and good, but you do kinda need something more than grey slop to live’. Another said: ‘I’m so glad you mentioned this. I’m sick of reading articles that praise innovations to increase calories, when what we need is better nutrition from vitamins, minerals & fibres’.

Both great points, and well made.

That essay was also factually incorrect when it described roots crops such as carrots or some of the leafy cabbages and lettuces as not requiring pollinators. Many varieties of these crops ARE pollinator dependent: how do they think we get the seed for the next year’s crop?! And there are many crops and varieties that have not been evaluated for their dependency on pollinators: the 75% figure actually refers to the 115 most productive crop plants (Klein et al. 2007).

When I tweeted about the essay I commented that I was very disappointed by ‘Our World in Data’ – they are usually better than this when it comes to the facts. What I hadn’t appreciated at the time was that in fact the Genetic Literacy Project had highjacked the original piece by Hannah Ritchie and reworked it to give it a very different slant*.

This is where it starts to get dishonest and in fact the Genetic Literacy Project (GLP) has form in this area. The Sourcewatch site describes the GLP as ‘a corporate front group that was formerly funded by Monsanto’ with a remit to ‘shame scientists and highlight information helpful to Monsanto and other chemical producers’. In other words it’s heavily tied to Big Agriculture which, of course, would like us to believe that there’s not an issue with declining pollinators, that pesticides and agricultural intensification are our friends, and that Everything Is OK. Read the full account here.

Frankly, the GLP is so tainted that I’d not believe anything that they publish.

Pollinator decline and the role of pollinators in agriculture are complex issues. If you’d like to know more about the importance of pollinators to agriculture, complete with some accurate and objective facts, then there’s a whole chapter devoted to the topic in my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society.

*Note that I’ve been communicating with Hannah about the root and leaf crop issue and she accepts that this needs to change in the original. She’s also asked the Genetic Literacy Project to take down their version as it contravenes copyright.

Reference

Klein, A.-M., Vaissière, B.E., Cane, J.H. et al. (2007) Importance of pollinators in
changing landscapes for world crops. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B
274: 303–313.

Impacts of the introduced European honey bee on Australian bee-flower networks – a new study just published

As I mentioned in my previous post, it’s currently Invasive Species Week in the UK. Non-native species which have negative environmental impacts and disrupt infrastructure are a global phenomenon, of course, and almost all regions of the world have been impacted by species that originated elsewhere. One alien species that is of growing concern in Australia is the western honey bee Apis mellifera. We often think of bees as being relatively benign organisms, but a number of species have been introduced around the world and may compete with native species for nectar and pollen, and nesting sites.

In the second paper from my collaboration with Dr Kit Prendergast, we’ve assessed how introduced honey bees change the structure of bee-flower visitation networks in Australian urban habitats. The main finding is that when honey bees are common, they dominate these networks in ways that indicate significant competition with native bee species. You can get a sense of that from the figure above: the honey bees are in red, native bees in yellow, native plants in light green, and non-native plants in dark green. The length of the bars is proportional to the abundance of these plants and bees.

To say that honey bees ‘dominate’ these networks is an understatement: not only are they vastly more abundant than the other bees, but they visit almost all of the different types of flowers in the network, regardless of whether they are native or introduced.

Although the honey bee bullshit machine often claims that western honey bees are dying out, the exact opposite is true: across the world, managed Apis mellifera numbers are higher than ever, as you can see from the following chart based on figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN-FAO):

Whilst the growth in honey bee numbers is a good thing for honey producers, bee farmers, and small-scale subsistence farmers, there are environmental consequences to the increase in hives, as we have shown.

If anyone wants a PDF of the paper, please use the Contact form. The full reference for the study and the abstract is:

Prendergast, K.S. & Ollerton, J. (2021) Impacts of the introduced European honeybee on Australian bee-flower network properties in urban bushland remnants and residential gardens. Austral Ecology (in press) https://doi.org/10.1111/aec.13040

Abstract:

The European honeybee Apis mellifera is a highly successful, abundant species and has been introduced into habitats across the globe. As a supergeneralist species, the European honeybee has the potential to disrupt pollination networks, especially in Australia, whose flora and fauna have co-evolved for millions of years. The role of honeybees in pollination networks in Australia has been little explored and has never been characterised in urban areas, which may favour this exotic species due to the proliferation of similarly exotic plant species which this hyper-generalist can utilise, unlike many native bee taxa. Here, we use a bipartite network approach to compare the roles, in terms of species-level properties, of honeybees with native bee taxa in bee-flower (‘pollination’) networks in an urbanised biodiversity hotspot. We also assessed whether the abundance of honeybees influences overall network structure. Pollination networks were created from surveys across seven residential gardens and seven urban native vegetation remnants conducted monthly during the spring-summer period over two years. There were consistent differences in species-level properties between bee taxa, with honeybees often differing from all other native bees. Honeybees had significant impacts on network properties, being associated with higher nestedness, extinction slopes of plants, functional complementarity and niche overlap (year two), as well as lower weighted connectance and generalisation. These associations all are indicative that competition is occurring between the introduced honeybee and the native bee taxa in bee-flower networks. In conclusion, the introduced honeybee occupies a dominant, distinct position in bee-flower networks in urban habitats in the southwest Western Australian biodiversity hotspot

Global effects of land-use intensity on pollinator biodiversity: a new study just published

Humans affect the land on which they live in many different ways, and this in turn influences local biodiversity. Sometimes this has positive effects on local wildlife: consider the diversity of birds to be found in well-managed suburban gardens, for example. But often the effect is negative, especially when the land is intensively managed or habitats are destroyed, for example via deforestation or urban development.

This is not a new phenomenon – according to a recent study, most of the habitable parts of the planet have been shaped by humans for at least 12,000 years (see Ellis et al. 2021). What is new, however, is the scale and the speed with which land-use is changing, which are far greater than they have been historically. An important question is the extent to which this change in land-use intensity is affecting pollinator diversity in different parts of the world. Over the past 18 months I’ve been collaborating on a project led by Joe Millard (as part of his PhD) and Tim Newbold which uses the Projecting Responses of Ecological Diversity In Changing Terrestrial Systems (PREDICTS) database to address that very question.

A paper from that collaboration is published today in the journal Nature Communications; it’s open access and can be downloaded by following this link.

The study was global in scale and used data from 12,170 sites to assess the affect of land-use intensity on 4502 pollinating species. The findings are really fascinating; highlights include:

  • In comparison to natural vegetation, low levels of land-use intensity can have a positive effect on the diversity of pollinators.
  • For most land categories, greater intensity of land-use results in significant reductions in diversity and abundance of pollinators, however. For example, for urban sites there’s a 43% drop in number of species and a drop in 62% pollinator abundance from the least to the most intensive urban sites.
  • On cropland, strong negative responses of pollinators to increasing intensity are only found in tropical areas, although different taxonomic groups vary in their responses.
  • The latter finding is especially concerning given that: (i) most pollinator diversity is found in the tropics; (ii) the majority of tropical crops are insect pollinated; and (3) tropical agriculture is becoming increasingly intensive and land use is likely to rapidly change in the coming decades.

The full reference for the study, with all authors, is:

Millard, J., Outhwaite, C.L., Kinnersley, R., Freeman, R., Gregory, R.D., Adedoja, O., Gavini, S., Kioko, E., Kuhlmann, M., Ollerton, J., Ren, Z.-X. & Newbold, T. (2021) Global effects of land-use intensity on local pollinator biodiversity. Nature Communications 12, 2902. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-23228-3

“Bee Together” with YDMT – pollinator online talks during January and February

As I write a slow haze of fine snow is falling, covering our garden with a thin white dusting. Spring feels a long way off, despite the emerging spears of daffodil leaves. But you can get a taste of what the new season will bring by signing up for a short series of free evening online talks on the topic of pollinators that has been organised by the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust – here’s the link for the Bee Together programme – and here’s more details of the talks:

Thursday January 28 at 7pm: Pollinators and Pollination: Nature and Society
An overview of the diversity of pollinators in Britain, why they are important, and the threats to that diversity with Jeff Ollerton.

Thursday February 18 (7pm): The B-Lines Project
Buglife’s B-Lines network is an imaginative solution to the problem of the loss of flowers and pollinators. B-Lines are a series of ‘insect pathways’ running through our countryside and towns, along which Buglife are restoring and creating a series of wildflower-rich habitat stepping stones. Catherine Jones talks about mapping the recently completed B-Lines map and some of the projects that have already created habitat for pollinators.

Thursday February 25 (7pm): The Hidden Lives of Garden Bees
Brigit Strawbridge Howard will explain some of the basic differences between bumblebees, solitary bees, and honeybees – including lifecycles and nesting behaviour; the problems they all face; and, most important, what we can do to help. Brigit is a wildlife gardener, amateur naturalist and advocate of bees. She writes and campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of native wild bees, and is the author of Dancing with Bees: A Journey Back to Nature.

I hope to see some of you there: Happy New Year everyone!

Finally, a physical copy of my book!

Yesterday I was delighted to finally receive an advance copy of my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society! It’s been over three years in the writing and production, much longer than I had anticipated. But, as I describe in its pages, the book is the culmination of >50 years of experience, study and research. So perhaps three years isn’t so bad…

If you’re interested in buying a copy you can order it direct from Pelagic Publishing and from most of the large online booksellers. Let me know what you think.

The chapter titles for my book: Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society

A few people have asked me about what’s covered in my book which is being published by Pelagic and is currently in production. Here’s the chapter titles:

Preface                                                                                                                        

1         The importance of pollinators and pollination                               

2         More than just bees: the diversity of pollinators                           

3         To be a flower                                                                                               

4         Fidelity and promiscuity in Darwin’s entangled bank                 

5         The evolution of pollination strategies                                              

6         A matter of time: from daily cycles to climate change                 

7         Agricultural perspectives                                                                        

8         Urban environments                                                                                  

9         The significance of gardens                                                                    

10      The shifting fates of pollinators                                                            

11      New bees on the block                                                                              

12      Managing, restoring and connecting habitats                                 

13      The politics of pollination                                                                        

14      Studying pollinators and pollination                                                  

As you can see it’s a very wide-ranging overview of the subject, and written to be accessible to both specialists and non-specialists alike. To quote what I wrote in the Preface:

“While the book is aimed at a very broad audience, and is intended to be comprehensible to anyone with an interest in science and the environment, and their intersection with human societies, I hope it will also be of interest to those dealing professionally with plants and pollinators. The subject is vast, and those working on bee or hoverfly biology, for example, or plant reproductive ecology, may learn something new about topics adjacent to their specialisms. I certainly learned a lot from writing the book.”

The book is about 100,000 words in length, lots of illustrations, and there will be an index. My copy editor reckons there’s 450 references cited, though I haven’t counted. I do know that they run to 28 pages in the manuscript, and that’s with 11pt text. All going well it will be published before Christmas.

Pollinators and pollination in the UK: an introductory workshop – 26th August

Jeff WT workshop 2020

The Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire has invited me to run my Introduction to Pollinators and Pollination workshop again this year, but of course it will all be online.  Details for signing up are on the images, or you can follow this link. 

Here’s a description of the workshop:

Pollination of flowers ensures the reproduction of most British wild plants and many of our agricultural crops. This session will provide an introduction to the natural history of pollinators and how they interact with the flowers that they pollinate. The main groups of pollinators will be introduced, with guidance on how to identify them, and their ecology and behaviour will be explored. The session will also consider why conserving these species is so important, followed by a Q and A discussion showing what individuals can do to help ensure their future diversity and abundance.

Recent pollinator and pollination related research that’s caught my eye

2020-07-30 16.25.26

As I near completion of the copy-editing phase of my forthcoming book it’s frustrating to see all of the great research that’s been produced in recent weeks that I probably won’t be able to cite!  Here’s a few things that caught my eye:

Damon Hall and Dino Martins have a short piece on Human dimensions of insect pollinator conservation in Current Opinion in Insect Science.  My favourite line is: “any call to ‘save the bees’ must be a call to stabilize agriculture”.  Amen to that.

In the journal New Phytologist, Rhiannon Dalrymple and colleagues, including Angela Moles who hosted me during my recent stay in Australia, have a great study entitled Macroecological patterns in flower colour are shaped by both biotic and abiotic factors.  The title pretty much sums it up: in order to fully understand how flowers evolve we need to consider more than just their interactions with pollinators.  It’s another demonstration of how we must look beyond simplistic ideas about pollination syndromes to fully understand the complexities of the relationship between flowering plants and pollinators…..

…..talking of which, again in New Phytologist, Agnes Dellinger asks: Pollination syndromes in the 21st century: where do we stand and where may we go?  It’s an insightful and far-reaching review of a topic that has intrigued me for more than 25 years.  There are still a lot of questions that need to be asked about a conceptual framework that, up until the 1990s, most people in ecology and biology accepted rather uncritically.  One of the main unanswered questions for me is how further study of largely unexplored floras will reveal the existence of new pollination systems/syndromes.  Which leads nicely to….

…..an amazing paper in Nature this week by Rodrigo Cámara-Leret et al. showing that New Guinea has the world’s richest island flora.  The described flora includes 13,634 plant species, 68% of which are endemic to New Guinea!  And the description of new species each year is not leveling off, there’s still more to be discovered.  A commentary on the paper by Vojtech Novotny and Kenneth Molem sets some wider context to the work, and quite a number of media outlets have covered the story.  Why is this relevant to pollinators and pollination?  Well, we actually know very little about this critical aspect of the ecology of the island: there’s only a handful of published studies of plant-pollinator interactions from New Guinea, mostly focused on figs, bird-flower interactions, and a couple of crops.  For such a biodiverse part of the world that’s a big gap in our understanding.

Finally, James Reilly, Rachael Winfree and colleagues have a paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society series B showing that: Crop production in the USA is frequently limited by a lack of pollinators.  Most significant findings to me were that of the seven crops studied, five of them have their yields limited by lack of pollinators, and that even in areas of highly intensive farming, wild bees provided as much pollination service as honeybees.

That’s a few of the things that I spotted this week; what have you seen that’s excited or intrigued you?  Feel free to comment.

 

Get a 30% discount if you pre-order my new book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society

PollinatorsandPollination-frontcover

In the next few months my new book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society will be published.  As you can imagine, I’m very excited! The book is currently available to pre-order: you can find full details here at the Pelagic Publishing website.  If you do pre-order it you can claim a 30% discount by using the pre-publication offer code POLLINATOR.

As with my blog, the book is aimed at a very broad audience including the interested public, gardeners, conservationists, and scientists working in the various sub-fields of pollinator and pollination research. The chapter titles are as follows:

Preface and Acknowledgements
1. The importance of pollinators and pollination
2. More than just bees: the diversity of pollinators
3. To be a flower
4. Fidelity and promiscuity in Darwin’s entangled bank
5. The evolution of pollination strategies
6. A matter of time: from daily cycles to climate change
7. Agricultural perspectives
8. Urban environments
9. The significance of gardens
10. Shifting fates of pollinators
11. New bees on the block
12. Managing, restoring and connecting habitats
13. The politics of pollination
14. Studying pollinators and pollination
References
Index

 

 

For World Bee Day – an extract from my forthcoming book – UPDATED

Image

UPDATE: turns out the figure I cited for number of bee species is out of date so I’ve corrected it below. Thanks to John Ascher for pointing this out.

Publication of my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society by Pelagic Publishing has been pushed back until the end of this year or early in 2021. The current pandemic has created problems for the printing and distribution sectors, as it has for so many industries. Therefore, to celebrate World Bee Day, here’s a preview of the bee section from Chapter 2 which is entitled (ironically enough) “More than just bees – the diversity of pollinators”.

2.3 Bees, wasps and sawflies (Hymenoptera)

The bees and their relatives rank only third in terms of overall pollinator diversity.  Within this taxonomic Order, bees are not especially species rich (17,000 or so described species, perhaps 20,000 in total) – over 20,400 (see: https://www.catalogueoflife.org/col/details/database/id/67) compared with the other 50,000 social and solitary wasps, sawflies, and so forth. But what they lack in diversity the bees make up for in importance as pollinators of both wild and agricultural plants, and in their cultural significance.  The general notion of what a bee is, and how it behaves, looks to the honeybee (Apis mellifera) as a model: social, with a hierarchy, a queen, and a large nest (termed a hive for colonies in captivity).  In fact, this view of bee-ness, though long embedded within our psyche, is far removed from the biology of the average bee: most of them have no social structure at all, and a fair proportion of those are parasitic.  In Britain we have about 270 species of bees, give or take (Falk 2015) though there have been extinctions and additions to this fauna (see Chapters 10 and 11).  These species provide a reasonable sample of the different lifestyles adopted by bees globally.  They can be divided into four broad groups.

Honeybees include several highly social species and subspecies of Apis, of which the ubiquitous western honeybee (A. mellifera) is the most familiar.  Most colonies are found in managed hives, though persistent feral colonies can be found in hollow trees, wall cavities, and other suitable spaces.  They are widely introduced into parts of the world where they are not native (e.g. the Americas, Australia, New Zealand) and there is some debate as to whether they are truly native to Britain and northern Europe, with supporting evidence and arguments on both sides.  Colonies can be enormous and contain thousands of individuals, mostly female workers, with a single queen.  Unmated queens and males (drones) are produced by the colony later in the season.

Bumblebees (Bombus spp.) are typically also social, though their nests are much smaller (tens to hundreds of individuals).  Depending upon the species these nests can be in long grass, rodent holes, or cavities in buildings and trees.  Twenty-seven of the more than 250 species have been recorded in the UK, but six of these are not strictly social; they are parasitic and belong to the subgenus Psithyrus which will be described below.

The so-called solitary bees are by far the largest group in Britain (about 170 species) and worldwide (more than 90% of all species).  In the UK they belong to 15 genera, including Andrena, Anthophora, Osmia, Megachile, etc.  The females of most of these bees, once they have mated, construct nests that they alone provision with pollen for their developing young.  Nesting sites can be genus- or species-specific, and include soil, cavities in stone or wood, and snail shells.  Some species are not strictly solitary at all and may produce colonies with varying levels of social structure, though without a queen or a strict caste system; we term them “primitively eusocial”.  In fact sociality has evolved and been lost numerous times in the bees and in the rest of the Hymenoptera (Danforth 2002, Hughes et al. 2008, Danforth et al. 2019).  It’s also been lost in some groups that have reverted back to a solitary lifestyle, and even within a single genus it can vary; for example in the carpenter bee genus Ceratina (Apidae: Xylocopinae) tropical species are more often social than temperate species (Groom & Rehan 2018).

The final group is termed the cuckoo bees and, like their avian namesake, they parasitise the nests of both social and solitary bees (though never, interestingly, honeybees).  There are about 70 species in 7 genera, including the bumblebee subgenus, Psithyrus.  Other genera include Melecta, Nomada and Sphecodes.  In some cases the parasitic species are closely related evolutionarily to their hosts and may resemble them, for example some Psithyrus species.  In other cases they may be only distantly related and in fact look more like wasps, e.g. Nomada species.  Some genera of cuckoo bees are restricted to parasitising only a single genus of bees, others are parasites of a range of genera (Figure 2.4).

Although we often think of bees, overall, as being the most important pollinators, in fact species vary hugely in their importance.  Pollinating ability depends upon factors such as abundance, hairiness, behaviour, body size, and visitation rate to flowers (Figure 2.1).  Size is especially important for three reasons.  First of all, larger animals can pick up more pollen on their bodies, all other things being equal.  Secondly, in order to bridge the gap between picking up pollen and depositing it, flower visitors must be at least as large as the distance between anthers and stigma, unless they visit the stigma for other reasons.  Finally, larger bee species tend to forage over longer distances on average (Greenleaf et al. 2007) thus increasing the movement of pollen between plants.  However, most of the world’s bees are relatively small as we can see from the analysis of British bees in Figure 2.5.  Many species have a maximum forewing length of only 4 or 5 mm, and the majority of species are smaller than honeybees.  Remember also that these are maximum sizes measured from a sample; individual bees can vary a lot within populations and even (in the case of Bombus spp.) within nests (Goulson et al. 2002).  So the assumption that all bees are good pollinators needs to be tempered by an acknowledgement that some are much better than others.    


Figure 2.5: The sizes of British bees. Forewing length is a good measure of overall body size and the data are maximum lengths recorded for species, except for the social bumblebees and honeybee I have used maximum size of workers (queens are often much larger). The blue line indicates the honeybee (Apis mellifera). The biggest bee in this data set is the Violet Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa violacea) which, whilst not generally considered a native species (yet), has bred in Britain in the past. Data taken from Falk (2015).