Bees’ Needs: Government launches National Pollinator Strategy

Last week, the Natural Capital Initiative – a partnership between the British Ecological Society, Society of Biology, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and the James Hutton Institute – hosted Valuing our Life Support Systems 2014, a summit bringing together scientists, policymakers and businesses to debate how we can better preserve those elements of nature that provide the vital services on which our human society and economy depends. There are few clearer examples of our reliance on these ecosystem services than the role of insect pollinators in our agricultural system, and it was therefore apt that last week also saw the launch of the UK Government’s National Pollinator Strategy – a new ten year plan “to help pollinating insects survive and thrive”.

Following the publication of a draft version earlier this year and a subsequent consultation, the final strategy was launched on Tuesday by Secretary of State Elizabeth Truss as part of her first ministerial speech on the natural environment. The strategy outlines the Government’s commitment to “taking action to improve the state of our bees and other pollinating insects and to build up our understanding of current populations and of the causes of decline”. Expressed in simple terms as expanding the provision of “food and a home” for bees and other pollinators, the strategy aims to deliver more and better flower-rich habitats across the country that support  a healthy  and resilient population of insects, with no further extinctions of threatened species and improved awareness across different audiences of the essential needs of pollinators.

The strategy aims to achieve these outcomes through five main areas of work:

  • Supporting pollinators on farmland through the Common Agricultural Policy and voluntary initiatives to improve habitats, and by minimising the risks associated with pesticide use through best practice including Integrated Pest Management.
  • Supporting pollinators across urban and rural areas by working with large landowners to promote simple changes to land management, and encouraging the public to take action in their own gardens and communities.
  • Enhancing the response to pest and disease risks, improving beekeepers’ husbandry and management practices, and keeping under active review any evidence of pest and disease risks associated with commercially produced pollinators used for high-value crop production.
  • Raising awareness of what pollinators need to survive and thrive through disseminating advice to land owners, managers and gardeners, and improving knowledge exchange between scientists and conservation practitioners.
  • Improving evidence on the status of pollinators and the service they provide by developing a long-term monitoring programme.

While the announcement of the strategy was broadly welcomed by the many NGOs who have been actively campaigning for its introduction, the lack of specific targets and the limited action on pesticide use have been highlighted as weaknesses. Similarly, Joan Walley MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, welcomed the acknowledgement of many of the committee’s recommendations in the final strategy, yet expressed her disappointment that “the Government seems stubbornly determined to keep open the possibility of challenging the EU ban on the neonicotinoid pesticides”.

The investment in research and monitoring to better understand the status of our pollinators – a group we know surprisingly little about – is a welcome step. The paucity of our current knowledge was highlighted as a key concern at a recent seminar hosted by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. However, the strategy does not include any provisions to further investigate the combined impacts of pesticides – both neonicotinoids and others – on bees and other insects, an area also identified in the seminar as being of crucial research importance.

The National Pollinator Strategy demonstrates a growing recognition of the importance of ecosystem services for our society and economy, and sets out some clear steps for maintaining and enhancing one vital aspect of our natural capital. The challenge now is implementing the strategy effectively, and crucially, monitoring its level of success.