Present and future directions for pollinator policy and research

In a report released by Defra last week, the health and value of bees and other pollinators has been reviewed in light of current evidence bases and policy. Serving as a good platform for bringing together the different approaches and policies currently being carried out to address pollinator declines, the review has set the ball rolling for the ‘National Pollinator Strategy’ which was announced in late June by Lord de Mauley.

Bees and pollinators are a hot topic at the moment, with discussion stretching from Brussels and Westminster to the public arena. At the end of June the British Library held a ‘Talk Science’ event on pollinators and pesticides, and last week the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee held a discussion on the importance of bees. Both featured pollinator researchers, beekeepers and other stakeholders.

Pollinators in the UK, such as honey bees, bumble bees and butterflies, provide an essential service for agriculture in addition to contributing to the wide diversity of UK insect life. However, as many people are now aware, the numbers of both managed and wild pollinators have declined due to a variety of threats including habitat loss, pests and disease and agricultural practices. Consequently many initiatives and policies have been developed to try halt these declines. The most recent of these has been the two year ban of neonicotinoid pesticides by the EU Commission.  The aim of this current review was therefore to assess current and proposed government-led policies and initiatives spanning seven policy areas for England to see whether they are or could deliver benefits for pollinators by reducing the pressures that they face.

Agricultural policies and initiatives have a large role to play in helping to reduce the impacts that pollinators face. Greening of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is seen as an important step in helping to reduce the threats and the report hopes that the UK can consequently push for ‘more ambitious agri-environment schemes’ that are likely to be of benefit to pollinators. Additionally, the low participation by farmers to engage in Environment and Entry Level Stewardship schemes that promote the conservation of pollinators is seen as an issue that needs to be resolved. The review highlights the new options that are available to a wider range of farmers following a review in January 2013. Work is now taking place as to how to increase the effectiveness of these schemes in providing benefits to pollinators and to help to take the Environmental Stewardship scheme forward into the Rural Development Programme for 2015.

Pesticide policy has faced much attention recently and, given the UK government’s position on the EU neonicotinoids debate the review, perhaps unsurprisingly only offers a short description surrounding pesticide policy. Most of the focus is on the authorisation and monitoring processes involved with pesticides. However, it does state that the National Action Plan for the sustainable use of pesticides is continuously under development and highlights that it will continue to encourage farmers to minimise their pesticide use through a range of different Integrated Pest Management options.

Direct habitat and species conservation measures are also being undertaken to benefit pollinators. In particular, the review shows the influence the Biodiversity 2020 strategy could have in improving both pollinator populations and the wider environment. A number of actions taken as part of the strategy will be beneficial for pollinators, including conservation projects to support priority species such as bumble bees and funding of £7.5m to improve Nature Improvement Areas which will help create and secure habitat for pollinators in addition to other species. The recent National Planning Policy Framework and the Green Infrastructure Partnership also provide good opportunities for aiding the conservation of pollinating insects and reducing the threats that they face through the criteria that they stipulate developers and councils to meet.

Honey bee health is also reviewed, with the Healthy Bees Plan being shown to be well underway for educating and training beekeepers in improving husbandry and management of pests and diseases. The Veterinary Medicines Directorate continues to work to develop and improve the availability of medicines for bees. The Insect Pollinators Initiative, which funds research into the causes and consequences of pollinator declines, has also been relatively successful, publishing 21 scientific articles and involving itself with many public engagement activities. Projects that it is involved with include work into disease and pests, the role of urban pollinators and how land use changes impact pollinator populations.

Into the future, the review highlighted the lack of long term monitoring of pollinator populations which has hindered our ability to truly understand the causes and consequences of pollinator declines. This was also pointed out by Dr Lynn Dicks from the University of Cambridge at the British Library’s Pollinators and Pesticides event at the end of June. There are also many knowledge gaps, such as relating pollination success regarding quantity and yield to the attributes of the pollinator community and the economic valuations of the services pollinators provide. In terms of policy, there are estimated to be over 30 different pieces of legislation that have direct or indirect impacts upon pollinators and government initiatives. These are carried out and implemented by numerous governmental and non-governmental organisations and individuals. The future challenge now is to reduce this complexity and better co-ordinate actions to generate the most effective outcomes for pollinators. Whilst the government has a key role in investing in science and developing the right policies, it is up to other non-governmental organisations and individuals to also play a role in tackling the decline of pollinators.