According to Buglife, one out of every three mouthfuls of our food depends on insect pollination. It is estimated that 84% of EU crops (valued at £12.6 billion per year) and 80% of wildflowers rely on it. Without this invaluable service we wouldn’t be able to enjoy a lot of the great food we now take for granted such as apples, strawberries, cocoa or pumpkins. And it is not just honey bees that do all the hard work of transporting pollen from one plant to another, enabling blossom to turn into fruit and seed. Most pollination is done by the likes of hoverflies, other kinds of bees (there are around 250 species just in the UK!), moths, butterflies, beetles, flies and even the unpopular wasps lend their limbs to the cause.
In fact the world would be a very different place if it wasn’t for activities of little creatures which most of us like to ignore or swat away. The vast majority of life on this planet, at least 65%, is made up of invertebrates, i.e. creatures without a backbone. Besides pollinating crops and flowers, they are nature’s recyclers that clear away rotting debris, they provide food for other species such as birds, and while some of them are pests in our gardens and fields, others help us control them.
Back to pollination though. It’s taken place for millions of years and plants have evolved a myriad of ways to attract the insects which will do the best job of spreading the plant’s genes – from heavy scent (or stench) to bright colours and specially shaped landing pads. In recent decades, however, numbers of pollinating insects have declined dramatically, and without them the plants and lots of other species could disappear, too. In some parts of the world such as China and United States humans have had to step in and hand-pollinate trees in order to secure harvests of apples and pears.
The reasons for the pollinators’ disappearance are many, from the loss of habitats due to intensive agriculture (we have lost over 97% of wildflower-rich meadows since 1940’s in the UK) to extensive use of chemicals and to climate change. Buglife, a charity dedicated to saving the small things that run the planet, estimates that almost a third of all bees and wasps are under threat while at least 15% of all UK invertebrates are under threat. That means about 4,500 species are in decline. Chris Packham explains rather well why wildflowers are important and what’s happened to them in this BBC video.
There is a lot we don’t know yet about all these invertebrates and how they fit into their ecosystems but it would sure be a shame to only find out how important they were after they’d gone. They all have a part to play and if we don’t halt their decline, we may be forced to say goodbye to a lot of our food, wildflowers and whole habitats.
So what can individuals do about this daunting task? There’s something to do for everyone, including city and flat dwellers who might think it impossible. Where agriculture has been intensified, cities with their parks and gardens are fast becoming refuges for all sorts of wildlife. Whichever of the following action points you take, it will result in an even more vibrant and colourful world to enjoy.
Buglife’s Get Britain Buzzing campaign highlights and aims to address the crisis which pollinating insects face and to stop their further decline by enhancing habitats across the country. The Bee Cause campaign by Friends of the Earth is mostly focusing on bees and working towards a strong national Bee Action Plan. Both offer numerous resources and ways to get involved.
Whether in a garden or just in pots on a window sill, anyone can sow some wildflowers and do something to encourage wildlife to prosper. RSPB website is a great source of advice on all aspects of wildlife-friendly gardening, and not just for pollinating insects, while Buglife even offers comprehensive advice on how to create a community meadow. A few starting points could be:
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by Ivana Jakubkova