Tag Archives: Agriculture

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.


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.

5th annual Postgraduate Research Symposium at Moulton College (Northants) – 15th December

Really interesting line up of speakers at the 5th Postgraduate Research Symposium at Moulton College Thursday 15th December 2016 in P9 (Lecture Theatre, Pitsford Centre (Gate 4), Moulton, Northampton, NN3 7QL).

For more information and to book a place for catering purposes, please contact Dr Wanda McCormick: wanda.mccormick@moulton.ac.uk

1.00pm Steve Davies Principal: Opening address

1.15pm Julia Lock: Tree health: without the chemicals

1.30pm Helen Tedds:  What does the future hold for exotic pet welfare?

1.45pm Blessing Katampe: Overview of aquaculture in Nigeria: prospects and challenges

2.00pm Claire Mitchell: Canine skull morphology: what we know so far

2.15pm Zainab Al-Rubaye: Lameness detection in sheep via multi-data analysis of a wearable sensor

2.30pm BREAK

2.45pm Emily Howard-Williams: The effect of eroded ecological networks on the movement of harvest mice (Micromys minutus)

3.00pm Clare Ellis: Do domestic rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) show individual consistency in their response to being handled?

3.15pm Dominic Langdon: Inter-session reliability of resting systolic blood pressure and centre of pressure in young adults

3.30pm Jessica York: The kinematics of the equine axial skeleton when exercising on an aqua-treadmill

3.45pm Alex Laws: Impacts of solar farms on UK agriculture

4.00pm Adnan Haq: An evaluation of the effects of whole body cryotherapy treatment for sports recovery



Ecological intensification and pollinator diversity: a new study by Garibaldi et al. (2016)

2013-04-15 13.54.19-2Think of “farming” and those of us living in the more industrialised parts of the world usually envision large fields that are intensively worked using heavy machinery and regular inputs of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. But for 2 billion of the world’s farmers, agriculture takes place on smallholdings of less than 2 ha in size, with little money available for vehicles and chemicals.  Maximising food outputs in such systems can be difficult.

Now a new study by Lucas Garibaldi, Luisa Carvalheiro and colleagues entitled “Mutually beneficial pollinator diversity and crop yield outcomes in small and large farms” has demonstrated that these small-scale farmers can increase the yields from insect pollinated crops on their farms by allowing native vegetation to grow alongside the crops, which supports a greater diversity and abundance of pollinators that then spill over into the adjacent fields.

It’s a great study that delivers a message that large agro-chemical firms probably will not wish to hear: that yields can be enhanced without throwing ever more fertiliser or pesticides onto the crops.

The paper is paywalled so you’ll have to ask the authors for a copy unless you (or your institution) has an e-subscription to Science.  But here’s the original abstract:

Ecological intensification, or the improvement of crop yield through enhancement of biodiversity, may be a sustainable pathway toward greater food supplies. Such sustainable increases may be especially important for the 2 billion people reliant on small farms, many of which are undernourished, yet we know little about the efficacy of this approach. Using a coordinated protocol across regions and crops, we quantify to what degree enhancing pollinator density and richness can improve yields on 344 fields from 33 pollinator-dependent crop systems in small and large farms from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. For fields less than 2 hectares, we found that yield gaps could be closed by a median of 24% through higher flower-visitor density. For larger fields, such benefits only occurred at high flower-visitor richness. Worldwide, our study demonstrates that ecological intensification can create synchronous biodiversity and yield outcomes.


The challenge from this paper is two-fold.  First of all it’s how to operationalise this kind of research on the ground, to farmers and agronomists who are unlikely to be readers of the journal Science.  This is where organisations such as the UN’s FAO, country-level government agencies, and non-governmental organisations  have a crucial role to play, translating research into action.

The second challenge is likewise difficult – how do we bring “ecological intensification” into the industrialised agriculture of more developed nations?  I have no immediate answer to that, but research such as this shows what the potential benefits can be, for both agriculture and biodiversity.

The reference is:  Garibaldi, L.A. et al. (2016) Mutually beneficial pollinator diversity and crop yield outcomes in small and large farms.  Science 351: 388-391

Butterflies and pesticides – a new study and a smoking gun

Gatekeeper cropped P1010472

Following hot on the trail of the raft of recent papers that I highlighted on the blog last week comes a new study by Andre Gilburn and colleagues entitled “Are neonicotinoid pesticides driving declines of widespread butterflies?“.  The paper is open access and published in the journal PeerJ which encourages post-publication comments and review of the work.  I see that Tom Oliver of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology has started the ball rolling with a couple of questions, and hopefully more will follow, with responses from the authors.

The paper focuses on the fact that between 2000 and 2009 there was a 58% decline in butterfly abundance on farmed land in the UK despite a doubling of spending on conservation in the UK over the same period, much of it on agri-environmental schemes on that very same farmed land.

Using a statistical modelling approach the authors conclude that the introduction of neonicotinoid pesticides in the mid-1990s is strongly implicated as a likely driver of those declines.  My immediate question on reading the paper was: “What were the trends like before the mid-1990s, and did the rate of decline change significantly after that period?”

The authors don’t directly answer the question but it seems to me to be quite an important one to answer because abrupt changes in rates of decline in the abundance and diversity of species can be linked to broader changes in, for example, land management and agricultural practices, as we showed recently for bee and wasp extinctions in Britain.

So I looked for the data that would tell me whether the trend had changed and found what I needed in the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme annual report for 2014.  Here’s a screen grab of Figure 3 from the report:

Butterfly abundance indices - November 2015

I’ve marked the point at which neonicotinoid pesticides were starting to be widely used in UK farming with a black line.  As you can clearly see this is also roughly the point at which the abundance of the 24 “Species of the wider countryside” begins to trend downwards.  In comparison, the 26 “Habitat specialists” show much less of a change, and in fact their initial decline was much earlier (in the 1970s-80s), possibly in response to loss of species rich grassland and ancient woodland.

Of course I’m just eyeballing the data and it needs to be tested statistically to see if there really is a break point in the trend at the mid-1990s, but this ought to be possible for anyone with access to the full data set.  Even if this is shown to be the case it’s all correlative (as Gilburn and colleagues acknowledge) and proving causation is difficult.  Nonetheless it looks to me like there’s an interesting smoking gun here that deserves further study.

Who is feeding the honey bee bullshit machine?

Bee on apple blossom 2 - 1st May 2015

This morning I received an email from Public Policy Exchange (PPE) inviting me to a conference in London in November entitled “Biodiversity and Local Partnerships: Halting the Decline of the Honey Bee in the UK

The opening statement on the website and the official flyer convinced me that the organisers have been misinformed; all of it is wrong:

Healthy honey bee populations are vital to food and crop production, and the natural environment. In the UK, honey bees are responsible for 80% of pollination, and a third of the food we eat is pollinated by bees.”

Where are they getting this  information from?  Who is feeding organisations like the PPE this kind of bullshit?  Is it bee keeping organisations?  I’d really like to know.

Honeybees are responsible for only one third of the crop pollination in the UK (Breeze et al. 2011), and a very small proportion of the wild plant pollination. Wild bees, hoverflies, butterflies, and other pollinators are much more important than honeybees, and collectively they are responsible for this pollination, not just managed honeybees.  No one is denying that honey bees are important, but there is absolutely nothing to gain (and a lot to lose in terms of science credibility) by over-playing their importance, as I’ve argued in the peer-reviewed literature.

It’s not as if this is the only recent example, The Daily Express online has recently been equally ignorant of the facts, and didn’t even get the right bee in the accompanying image.

It’s interesting that the PPE website also uses the infamous not-Einstein quote, though they cite the author as “unknown”.  With good reason, because that’s bullshit too.

I won’t be attending the conference.

By lifting the restriction on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides Defra throws a (bee) brick at its own National Pollinator Strategy


Yesterday a brick arrived in the post.  Not just any brick, but a Bee Brick, designed by the Green&Blue company in Cornwall as an architectural addition that can provide habitat for cavity nesting solitary species such as the Patchwork leaf-cutter bee that I discussed during Pollinator Awareness week.  A representative of the company recently got in touch, after having read my blog, and asked if I’d like a sample to try out in the garden.  In the absence of any planned wall building I’ve placed it a couple of metres up on the flat top of a south facing summer house window.  It’s probably a bit late in the season to attract any nesting solitary bees this year, but we’ll see; expect a report back from me at some point.

I had actually encountered the Bee Brick earlier this year at the Chelsea Flower Show which Karin and I attended as a 50th year bucket-list day out.  It was ok, I enjoyed it, the plants and (some of) the gardens were great.  But it was too busy, too expensive and too full of ostentatiously wealthy people for my tastes.

As if to serve as a counter-point to all the good work being done during Pollinator Awareness Week and by companies such as Green&Blue, came the recent news that Defra has agreed to lift the restrictions on use of two neonicotinoid pesticides on oil seed rape across a “limited” area in the east of the country.  It will apparently apply mainly to Suffolk, and cover an area of about 30,000 hectares.  That’s 5% of the UK’s oil seed rape crop.

The decision was made at the behest of the National Farmers Union, and seems to make no farming sense whatsoever given that nationally yields of oil seed rape have not been affected by the restriction on neonicotinoids, with the harvest this year looking to be above average.   Not surprisingly the decision has drawn furious fire from a range of environmental organisations including Buglife and the Wildlife Trusts. Meanwhile Friends of the Earth have threatened legal action, a move prompted by the fact that the Government has refused to allow its independent advisors to publish the details of the decision, including how it was made and what was discussed.

Aside from the lack of transparency, what particularly worries me is that this decision opens the door to further use of these restricted pesticides over the next 12 months, on a region by region basis, until we are back where we were prior to the restrictions being imposed.  The two year restriction on use of neonicotinoid pesticides comes to an end in December, at which point no one outside (and possibly inside) of Defra knows what is going to happen.

The National Farmers Union is being very selective with their use of information about the scientific evidence base for the effects of these pesticides on pollinators.  Dr Chris Hartfield, the NFU’s horticultural policy adviser and lead on bee health issues, was quoted as saying “The majority of the research that has fuelled this debate has been based on artificial dosing studies. The big question in this area is, does this accurately reflect what happens to bees foraging in and around neonicotinoid crops?  We don’t know, but the field studies haven’t shown that they are causing population declines in pollinators”.

Dr Hartfield and the NFU know full well that all of the evidence so far published shows that even at very small (field realistic) doses, neonicotinoid pesticides have been demonstrated to have important, sub-lethal effects on pollinators that may ultimately affect populations of some species.  Surely the wisest course of action is to further restrict their use until we have studied the situation.

This is not the only occasion when the NFU have been less than objective with their use of scientific evidence.  In the past couple of weeks I’ve had a group email exchange with Dr Hartfield in which he talked about the study by Carvalheiro et al. (2013) that “shows these [pollinator] declines have slowed (or even reversed) in the last 2 decades”.  I responded by pointing out that the current situation is not as straightforward as that.  The recent paper that we published in the journal Science showed that the rate of extinctions of UK bees and flower-visiting wasps has in fact increased over the period when Carvalheiro et al. (2013) see a slow down in declines in abundance.

There are a number of reasons why our results may be in disagreement with those of Carvalheiro et al., which we discuss in the paper, including the large statistical confidence interval around the rate of extinction during this latter period. However as with all such data, one or two studies will not give a definitive answer.  I provided Dr Hartfield with a link to our paper but I’m still waiting to receive a reply.

Initiatives such as the Bee Brick, reduced mowing on road verges, the RHS’s Perfect for Pollinators plant list, etc., etc. are important but they are tiny contributions compared to the role that must be played by British agriculture if we are to conserve pollinator diversity in the UK.  Farming accounts for 70% of the land surface in this country and has by far the greatest part to play in reducing biodiversity loss.

Within 12 months of Defra launching the National Pollinator Strategy, the same Government department has decided to bow to pressure and allow some use of a group of pesticides that we know are causing problems, even if they are not the whole story.  Defra is effectively hurling what may be the first of many bricks at itself, ultimately weakening the Strategy.   From conversations with politicians I know that these large departments do not have good internal communication and dialogue, but this seems to be an outstanding example of Orwellian double-think on the part of Defra.


Garden pollinators for PAW no. 5 – Orange-tailed mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa)

Bee on apple blossom 2 - 1st May 2015

The Orange-tailed mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa) is also referred to as the Early mining bee due to its habit of emerging from over-wintered nests as early in the year as March.  In truth, however, many Andrena species put in an early appearance, making them important pollinators of orchard fruit such as apples, which you can see from the photograph above, taken in my urban garden earlier this year.  So “Orange-tailed” is a more descriptive name.

Thanks to the Orange-tailed mining bee and other early bees, this unnamed apple variety (which Karin and I rescued from the bargain area of a local garden centre) has gone on to produce a heavy crop of eating apples (see below). There’s considerable interest in the role of wild bees such as these as pollinators of fruit in commercial orchards, not just in Europe but in the USA too, where other Andrena spp. also pollinate apples.

The epithet “Mining bees” refers to the fact that these solitary species of the genus Andrena usually make their nests in soil, excavating deep tunnels in which to construct individual cells.  It’s another generalist, taking pollen and nectar from a wide variety of garden and wild flowers.  Dandelions are particularly important early in the year – so don’t over-manage your lawn and allow some to flower!


How good is the evidence base for pollinator declines? A comment on the recent Ghazoul and Goulson Science correspondence

In a recent issue of the journal Science, Dave Goulson and colleagues presented a review entitled “Bee declines driven by combined stress from parasites, pesticides, and lack of flowers”.  This stimulated Jaboury Ghazoul to submit a letter to Science criticising the Goulson et al. paper from a number of perspectives, but particularly the paucity of the evidence base for pollinator declines. Dave and his co-authors robustly responded to that letter, as you might imagine. In some respects this was an unsatisfactory exchange, however, as the focus was largely on agricultural pollinators, rather than pollinators of all plants (including the majority non-cultivated species) and I think that (perhaps with more space?) Dave could have outlined the evidence in more depth.

The most striking statement in Jaboury’s letter was that the “evidence for pollinator declines is almost entirely confined to honeybees and bumblebees in Europe and North America”.

Now, even given the fact that Jaboury was possibly referring specifically to agricultural pollinators, that is a very extreme statement to make. Underlying it is the suggestion that global concerns about declining pollinator biodiversity (a subject I’ve discussed repeatedly on this blog) is underpinned by a taxonomically and geographically thin evidence base. Is that really true? I don’t believe so and I think it’s worth presenting a brief overview of the evidence, not least because Dave’s review and the resulting correspondence is pay-walled at the Science site (though if you Google the titles you might, just might, find copies posted on the web…)

Let me state from the outset that I have considerable respect for both Jaboury and Dave, as individuals and as scientists. I’ve known Dave since we were postgrads together in the early 1990s, and have had occasional contact with Jaboury through conferences and via email. So this isn’t meant to be a criticism of either of them.  But I do believe that the evidence for pollinator declines is considerably more robust than Jaboury acknowledges, and even more wide ranging than Dave and colleagues describe in their response (though in fairness, most of the bee evidence was cited in their original review).

Here’s a summary of where I see the evidence base at the moment; it’s not meant to be a full review, by any means, but rather to give a flavour of the taxonomic and geographical breadth and depth of the evidence as it currently stands:

Wild bees (including bumblebees, and solitary and primitively eusocial bees) – significant reduction of abundance and diversity at local, regional and country-levels documented in Britain (Biesmeijer et al. 2006, Ollerton et al. 2014), Holland (Biesmeijer et al. 2006), Europe as a whole (Kosier et al. 2007, the recent IUCN Red List by Nieto et al 2014), North America (Grixti et al. 2007, Cameron et al. 2011, Burkle et al. 2013), South America (Morales et al. 2013; Schmid-Hempel et al. 2013), China and Japan (Xie et al. 2008; Williams et al. 2009; Matsumura et al. 2004; Inoue et al. 2008), and South Africa (Pauw 2007).

Honey bees – colony declines documented in Europe and North America (see reviews by NRC 2007, Potts et al. 2010) and evidence that global demand for honey bee pollination services is outstripping supply (Aizen and Harder 2009).

Hoverflies (Syrphidae) – diversity declines documented in Holland and Britain (Biesmeijer et al. 2006).

Butterflies and moths – diversity and abundance of Lepidoptera has declined in the UK (Gonzalez-Megias et al. 2008, Fox 2013), whilst in North America some 50 species are IUCN criteria Red Listed and there is particular concern about the iconic Monarch butterfly.  Likewise a significant fraction of butterflies in other parts of the world are of conservation concern, e.g. Southern Africa, Australia, and Europe.

Flower-visiting wasps – reduction in country-level diversity in Britain (Ollerton et al. 2014).

Birds and mammals – the major vertebrate pollinators have recently been assessed at a global level by Regan et al. (2015) using IUCN Red List criteria.  They concluded that: “overall, pollinating bird and mammal species are deteriorating in status, with more species moving toward extinction than away from it. On average, 2.5 species per year have moved one Red List category toward extinction in recent decades, representing a substantial increase in the extinction risk across this set of species”.

Of course a number of the studies cited above have shown that some species are doing better than others and a proportion of the taxa they have assessed are stable or even increasing in abundance (including managed honey bee colonies in some parts of the world). But the current evidence base, as I see it, is pointing towards significant declines in pollinator abundance and diversity at multiple spatial scales across all regions that have so-far been assessed with any rigour, for a wide range of taxa.

I’m happy to receive comments on this topic, particularly pointing me to major sources of evidence that I’ve not covered, or if you disagree with my conclusions.


Aizen and Harder (2009) The global stock of domesticated honeybees is growing slower than agricultural demand for pollination. Current Biology 19: 915–918.

Biesmeijer et al. (2006) Parallel declines in pollinators and insect-pollinated plants in Britain and the Netherlands. Science 313: 351–354.

Burkle et al. (2013) Plant-pollinator interactions over 120 years: Loss of species, co-occurrence, and function. Science 339, 1611–161.

Cameron et al. (2011) Patterns of widespread decline in North American bumble bees. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 108: 662–667.

Fox (2013) The decline of moths in Great Britain: a review of possible causes. Insect Conservation and Diversity 6: 5–19.

Gonzalez-Megias, A. et al. (2008) Changes in the composition of British butterfly assemblages over two decades. Global Change Biology, 14: 1464-1474.

Grixti (2009) Decline of bumble bees (Bombus) in the North American Midwest. Biol. Conserv. 142, 75–84 (2009).

Inoue et al. (2008). Displacement of Japanese native bumblebees by the recently introduced Bombus terrestris (L.) (Hymenoptera: Apidae). J. Insect Conserv. 12: 135–146.

Kosior (2007) The decline of the bumble bees and cuckoo bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae: Bombini) of Western and Central Europe. Oryx 41, 79–88.

Matsumura et al. (2004) Invasion status and potential ecological impacts of an invasive alien bumblebee, Bombus terrestris L. (Hymenoptera: Apidae) naturalized in Southern Hokkaido, Japan. Glob. Environ. Res. 8, 51–66.

National Resource Council (2007) Status of Pollinators in North America.  National Academies Press, Washington, DC.

Nieto et al. (2014) European Red List of Bees.  Publication Office of the European Union.

Ollerton et al. (2014) Extinction of aculeate pollinators in Britain and the role of large-scale agricultural changes.  Science 346: 1360-1362.

Pauw (2007) Collapse of a pollination web in small conservation areas. Ecology 88: 1759-1769.

Potts et al. (2010) Declines of managed honey bees and beekeepers in Europe. Journal of Apicultural Research 49: 15–22.

Regan et al. (2015) Global Trends in the Status of Bird and Mammal Pollinators. Conservation Letters DOI: 10.1111/conl.12162

Schmid-Hempel et al. (2013) The invasion of southern South America by imported bumblebees and associated parasites. Journal of Animal Ecology 83: 823–837.

Williams et al. (2009) The bumblebees of Sichuan (Hymenoptera: Apidae, Bombini). Syst. Biodivers. 7: 101–189.

Xie et al. (2008) The effect of grazing on bumblebees in the high rangelands of the eastern Tibetan Plateau of Sichuan. Journal of Insect Conservation 12: 695–703 (2008).