The number of honey bees worldwide has fallen sharply in recent years, but the causes are still largely unknown. Today, the U.K. government announced it will spend £10 million over 5 years to find out more about why the bees, and other pollinators such as butterflies and moths, are disappearing.
The U.K.’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) estimates that over the past 2 years, British bee numbers have fallen by 10% to 15%. According to a 2008 report funded by the department’s National Bee Unit, the number of honey bee colonies fell by 25.9% in 2008, an even more dramatic loss than the 11.7% decline documented in 2007. But numbers for other species are scarce. “We have no hard data about the total amount of decline [across all pollinator species],” says Richard Pywell, an ecologist from the U.K. Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). “We hope the initiative will look at this.”
Bees and pollinator insects are vital for the pollination of many crops, including strawberries, tomatoes, apples, and legumes—crops estimated to be worth £200 million a year to the U.K. agricultural economy. A further drop in pollinator numbers would mean these crops will become more difficult to grow, which could lead to food shortages and price hikes. Without the pollinators, “the state of our countryside would change entirely,” says Pywell.
Many bee species are now threatened with extinction, including the great yellow bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus) and the large garden bumblebee (Bombus ruderatus). These are now listed as protected species under the U.K.’s Biodiversity Action Plan—a government-run effort to conserve the country’s species and habitats.
The bee decline could be caused by a range of factors, says Pywell, largely habitat loss. Other possible factors at play include climate change, disease, or even chemicals in the environment. “It may be a combination of these factors working together,” he speculates, and this synergy could be producing a steeper decline in pollinator numbers than if each factor acted alone.
The new U.K. initiative aims to develop and encourage interdisciplinary research teams to monitor the decline, and to quantify and understand what's causing it, said Pywell. Ultimately, the initiative hopes to lead to policies and cost-effective solutions to stop numbers from falling further. Pywell also believes that the U.K. initiative will help inform researchers around the world who are also fighting the drop in numbers.
The initiative includes funding from multiple research bodies across the United Kingdom, including DEFRA, NERC, The Wellcome Trust, and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
Science article on colony collapse disorder in honey bees
Science article on NRC report on decline in North American pollinators
Photo: Stephen Ausmus, USDA