Insect pollinators provide a service worth an estimated £430 million to food, farming and retail sectors in the UK. How can we protect them, and enhance the sustainability of the UK food production system?

Bringing scientists together with the business community at the start of a process is a radically different way of working

Bill Sutherland

By carrying pollen from one plant to another, bees and other insects contribute to plant reproduction in almost 90% of our wild plants, and around 30% of our crops depend on them. But, as zoologist Dr Lynn Dicks explained, their future is under threat: “There has been a massive decline in some groups of insect pollinators. The number of bumblebee species in the UK dropped by around 30% between the 1950s and 1980s, and numbers of many large moth species in the UK have halved since the late 1960s.”

Most scientists agree that pollinator declines are caused by the interaction of various factors including habitat change, the consequent loss of flowers and nest sites, agricultural chemicals, disease and possibly climate change.

“There’s also an increasing acknowledgement of the important role pollinators play in food production,” added Dicks. “Some fruit crops are completely dependent on pollinators, and for others pollination results in better quality fruit.”

Dicks holds a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) three-year Knowledge Exchange Fellowship. Her work on pollinator conservation has brought together key players to identify knowledge gaps and to devise collaborative projects to address them. Twenty large businesses, including Waitrose and Heineken, joined forces with representatives from government agencies, nature conservation agencies including Natural England and Buglife, and scientists.

Framed in terms of a business interest, pollinator conservation has moved rapidly up the political and business agendas. A consortium of UK research funders has recently invested £10 million under the Insect Pollinators Initiative to identify and mitigate the main threats. “All the food companies with a dependence on fruit production are thinking about these sustainability issues now,” said Dicks. “Heineken, which makes Bulmers cider, uses about 30% of the UK apple crop, and apple yields are between 40% and 90% lower without pollinators, depending on the variety. Around 90% of the UK blackcurrant crop goes into Ribena, and without pollination blackcurrant yields drop by 10–40%.”

“We looked at the knowledge available from academia, the private sector and government,” said Dicks. Breaking down the issue into the status of pollinators, threats, and what could be done about these, the first round of discussions generated 246 ‘big’ questions. From this, a set of 35 priorities were chosen for investigation.

“The highest priority was to understand the basic underlying ecology of the insects – how important the diversity of pollinators is to delivering a reliable pollination service,”she added. Other priorities were to understand the relative contributions of wild and managed pollinators to crop yield, and the sub-lethal effects of chemicals on wild pollinators. The next stage of the project is to address some of the top 15 knowledge needs through new research.

The work formed the pilot for a wider NERC-funded Knowledge Exchange Programme on Sustainable Food Production by the Universities of Cambridge, Bangor, Lancaster, Leeds and Reading and the Plymouth Marine Laboratory. Aiming to enhance the use of science in making UK food production systems more environmentally sustainable, the Programme has developed a web‐based database of scientific evidence (, so that all sectors with an interest in sustainable food production can access knowledge.

“In many cases, the scientists in our project already knew about the issues and had the solutions, but the people who needed to know weren’t aware of this knowledge,” said Dicks. The priority knowledge needs identified by this work will structure ongoing efforts to make science accessible to practitioners, and will help to guide future science policy and funding.

“Bringing scientists together with the business community at the start of the process is a radically different way of working,” said Dicks’ collaborator Bill Sutherland, Miriam Rothschild Professor of Conservation Biology in the Department of Zoology. “This approach could apply to almost any academic field. We want to fundamentally change the way that conservation policy and practice works. This project is about pollinators, but if the knowledge exchange process works, we can start looking at the bigger picture.”

Inset: Dr Lynn Dicks and Prof Bill Sutherland

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