Credit Helen Hoyle.

Key messages:

  • UK wide biodiversity loss will lead to lower resilience of ecosystem functions such as pollination to future perturbations.
  • BESS has developed a simple approach that enables farmers to measure and improve how they support biodiversity and ecosystem services.
  • BESS research has informed the development of new agri-environment schemes for England that aim to support key pollinator species.
  • It is important to consider both cost and effectiveness when considering farm management options for conserving pollinators.
  • Biodiverse urban meadow plantings benefit both people and wildlife.

'Insect pollination helps to provide one in every three mouthfuls of our food…'

'8 out of 10 wild plants in Britain depend on insect pollination…'

'Britain has lost 97% of its flower-rich grassland since the 1940’s…'

Headlines like these have stimulated pollinator recovery efforts worldwide, including the National Pollinator Strategy in the UK [1], but policy makers, land managers and wider society need better evidence and tools to support decision making. 

The BESS research programme is highlighting the implications of pollinator declines, developing tools and informing policy options.

The implications of pollinator decline
DarkGreenFritillary_Tom Oliver

Dark Green Fritillary. Credit Tom Oliver.

Tom Oliver and colleagues from the Wessex BESS consortium found there has been a net decline in pollinating insects in Great Britain [2].  Currently, most crop pollination in Europe is carried out by just a few species that are not particularly threatened.  However, the loss in diversity amongst the wider pollinating community means fewer species to smooth out the effects of fluctuations in population sizes, or to ‘step in’ to fulfil the same role when currently dominant species are impacted.  The weakening of this ‘insurance’ capacity provided by biodiversity is particularly important given the uncertain future associated with the need for better food security, climate change and the squeeze on the countryside from urban expansion, all of which could lead to declines in the currently dominant species and insufficient pollination for crops and wild plants.  

How can growers best support pollinators?

 Supporting growers to make informed decisions

Cool Farm Alliance logoBESS research fellow Lynn Dicks created the biodiversity metric of the Cool Farm Tool, which aims to help growers to make more informed decisions to reduce their environmental impact.  There is a specific output for ‘beneficial insects’, so farmers can see how their actions would be expected to affect pollinators and natural enemies, and can make it an environmental objective to support them. The Cool Farm Alliance includes multinational food suppliers and the approach can be scaled up to whole supply chains.  Lynn comments that “decision support tools based on unbiased and systematic reviews of scientific evidence are the least well-developed element of evidence based environmental management.” 

The development of agri-environment schemes under uncertaintyAgricultural view

Lynn’s research has also informed the development of a new agri-environment scheme for England [3].  The work assessed which key bee species the scheme should concentrate on, what was limiting populations of these species and what agri-environment schemes could do that would be sufficient to support them.  Providing flower–rich habitat on 2 % of farmed land and 1 km of flowering hedgerow per 100 ha can supply these species with enough pollen to feed
their larvae (at low estimates of pollen demand).  Importantly, this research also highlights the assumptions and uncertainty involved when designing such schemes.  Wessex BESS have been working with a variety of organisations involved in ecological restoration and agri-environment schemes, including Conservation Grade, the RSPB, Syngenta’s operation pollinator and the Wildlife Trusts

The cost effectiveness of conservation options

HedgerowWhile agri-environment schemes are effective at supporting biodiversity, Lynn Dicks points out that “we still know very little about whether they support production-related ecosystem services in a way that could make them cost effective” [4].  This issue was also tackled by BESS researcher Zoë Austin and colleagues in a survey of the perceptions of farmers who were following the Conservation Grade environmentally sensitive farming protocol [5].  Options that were perceived as most effective for pollinators, such as improving the floristic diversity of field headlands, were not the most efficient because of their high cost.  Actions to improve hedgerow management were most efficient, despite being perceived as less effective for pollinators.  Lynn Dicks and colleagues suggest that there are many farmland conservation actions that are low cost to farmers and could be applied voluntarily, without monetary incentives [6].  These include creating uncultivated margins around arable fields and nest boxes for solitary bees.  

Pollinators in urban areas
Helen Hoyle Bram Rd Ltn single

F3UES perennial meadow in Luton. Credit Helen Hoyle.

Greenspace in urban areas also has an important role to play in supporting pollinators and provides an opportunity for large numbers of people to have contact with and benefit from biodiversity.  Currently, a high proportion of greenspace within urban areas is managed as close-mown amenity grassland with low biodiversity value.  Transforming some of this grassland to annual and perennial meadows supports pollinators and other beneficial invertebrates throughout the year [7]

F3UES researchers worked with Local Authorities and residents to create a variety of urban meadows in Bedford and Luton.  Using photos of different planting options Urban perennial meadows increased visitor’s appreciation of the greenspace [8].  When photos of different planting options were compared meadows were preferred to mown grassland or herbaceous borders [8].  More diverse meadows were also preferred, demonstrating a win-win situation for people and wildlife.

Participants in the annual meadows, Helen Hoyle.

Resources for policy and practice from BESS researchers:

What is causing the decline in pollinating insects? A Living with Environmental Change (LWEC) policy and practice note co-authored by Lynn Dicks. 

Spatial targeting brings new opportunities for agri-environment schemes. An LWEC policy and practice note co-authored by Lynn Dicks.

Managing farmed landscapes for pollinating insects. An LWEC policy and practice note co-authored by Lynn Dicks.

Improving urban grassland for people and wildlife An LWEC policy and practice note from Helen Hoyle and colleagues. 

The Cool Farm Tool An online greenhouse gas and biodiversity calculator for farmers.

A practical guide to conserving pollinators by Marek Nowakowski and Richard Pywell, including a BESS funded analysis of four decades of data on pollinator populations.

  1. Defra, National Pollinator Strategy: for bees and other pollinators in England 2014.
  2. Oliver, T.H., et al., Declining resilience of ecosystem functions under biodiversity loss. Nature Communications, 2015. 6:10122.
  3. Dicks, L.V., et al., How much flower-rich habitat is enough for wild pollinators? Answering a key policy question with incomplete knowledge. Ecological Entomology, 2015. 40: p. 22-35.
  4. Batáry, P., et al., The role of agri-environment schemes in conservation and environmental management. Conservation Biology, 2015. 29(4): p. 1006-1016.
  5. Austin, Z., et al., Stakeholder perceptions of the effectiveness and efficiency of agri-environment schemes in enhancing pollinators on farmland. Land Use Policy, 2015. 47: p. 156-162.
  6. Santangeli, A., et al., Voluntary non-monetary approaches for implementing conservation. Biological Conservation, 2016. 197: p. 209-214.
  7. LWEC, Improving urban grassland for people and wildlife. Living With Environmental Change Policy & Practice Note 32. 2016.
  8. Southon, G.E., et al., Biodiverse perennial meadows have aesthetic value and increase residents’ perceptions of site quality in urban green-space. Landscape and Urban Planning, 2017. 158: p. 105-118.

Prepared by Laura Harrison, Anna Middlemiss and Charlie Parkin.