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How much of our food supply do bees pollinate?

5 February 2021
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The world of bees and pollinators is complex and has a much bigger impact on our lives than most people realise, but bee populations all over the world are declining at an alarming rate. This leads us to the question 'How much of our food supply do bees pollinate?'.

In the UK there are 25 species of bumblebee, 260 species of solitary bee, and 1 honey bee species, all vital to plant pollination and food crops globally.

Of those native species, approximately one-third are dying out, which could have disastrous consequences for our food supplies and food crops. This is due to a myriad of reasons but primarily the effects of habitat loss on bees. The value of insect pollination to the UK economy is estimated to be £690 million per year.

What percentage of crops do bees pollinate?

The food we produce relies heavily on honey bee populations for pollination. Honey bees alone are responsible for approximately 80% of worldwide pollination and are our specialist pollinators.

Of around 100 crop species, honeybees pollinate 70, including fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Domestic honeybees kept in hives pollinate approximately 34% while the rest is done by wild species. Want to know more about why bees collect pollen all the time.

Animal feed is pollinated by bees

Many of the plants that bees pollinate are used to make animal feed for farm animals like cows, sheep, and pigs. The most common fish foods used by commercial fish farms contain plant products such as oilseed rape, soya bean, and lupine, all pollinated by bees.

In 2019 researchers from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) examined more than 715,000 records from volunteer nature observers and reported that the geographic range of bees declined by roughly one quarter between 1980 and 2013.

The biggest losses occurred in the upland areas of Northern Britain with a fall of 55%, while species in Southern Britain fell by 25%.

There was a noted rise in 12% of wild species that are key pollinators for crops like oilseed rape used in a variety of industries. The belief is that this rise is thanks to farmers growing wildflowers on the borders of their crop fields and the 2013 ban on neonicotinoid insecticides.

Sunflowers growing in a field being pollinated by bees

Bees and other industries

Bees are not just important pollinators for our food supplies and food crops, they are also vital for other industries such as construction, medicine, and fabrics.

The timber used for building construction and furniture is sourced from broad-leafed trees that bees pollinate. Cotton, one of the most widely used fabrics is also pollinated by bees.

Flax to produce linen for clothing and bedsheets, hemp is used in the production of rope, cardboard, and soaps, and agave is used to produce fibres for weaving doormats, carpets, and dartboards.

Bees for medicinal products

Without bee pollination, we would not be able to produce many of our medicinal products. Bees pollinate willow and aspen trees which are used to produce over-the-counter drugs like Aspirin. Cancer drugs contain products from flowering plants pollinated by bees, as are the opium poppies used to produce morphine.

Beeswax is used during surgical procedures to prevent bleeding from bone surfaces and bee venom has shown to be effective in reducing tumour growth in mice and in some clinical studies.

Honey has a wide range of medicinal uses such as improving the healing of burns, soothing coughs and sore throats, improving the symptoms of rosacea and reducing swelling in the mouth such as sores and ulcers.

As bee populations decline, the production of thousands of life-saving drugs will be affected, as will the production of everyday painkillers and vitamin supplements.

How do bees pollinate our food chain?

Worker honey bees leave their honeybee hives in search of pollen and nectar from a variety of plant species. Bee colonies will travel in a small radius around their hives leaving and returning each day.

The relationship between pollinators and plants is fascinating. Bee pollinators will collect pollen from flowers in pollen baskets located on their bodies. Transfer of pollen will also occur as the bee rubs onto the flower in its hunt for nectar. Pollen grains will attach to the fur of the honey bee. The adhesive nature of the honeybee's fur makes them efficient pollinators.

Pollination by insects is critical to food production but natural habitats loss and population decline in efficient pollinator species leave an issue that faces us all.

Scientists are investigating the severe declines of pollinators as a matter of urgency but our crop plans may not be able to wait. Wild pollinators, evidence suggests, are particularly affected by the loss of their natural environment.

Which other animals pollinate our food supply?

Animal pollinators is a coverall term and honeybees are the most prolific pollinator population.

While they do pollinate small amounts of our consumed food the majority of their pollination occurs in areas with wild plants.

Natural pollinators come in all shapes and sizes and you can find healthy pollinator populations in the wild everywhere.

Insects mammals and birds including moths, beetles, wasps, lemurs, bats, hummingbirds, lizards and possums are all animal pollinators.

Learn more about which insects are pollinators?

How you can help the bees?

The two biggest threats bees face are habitat destruction and pesticides, but there are lots of things we can do to help bees from our own homes.

  1. Create a bee-friendly garden. There are several ways you can do this. Planting year-round flowers will ensure your local bees have access to pollen and nectar all year. Avoid using pesticides on your flowers as they are known to be harmful to bees. You can also let a small patch of your garden grow untouched. Lots of plants rich in nectar will begin to grow and bees will love it.
  2. Get a bee hotel. While some of your local bees will be from local domestic bee farms, many will be wild species. During the winter months, a bee hotel will provide bees, ladybirds, and other pollinating insects with a warm shelter.
  3. Plant a lavender window box. Lavender is a rich source of nectar for bees and the blooming season of lavender coincides with the breeding season of many bee species. During this time they will require more nectar to ensure they can produce enough food to support the hive. A lavender window box is basically a bee buffet!
  4. Avoid plants with large petals. It can be harder for bees to access the nectar from these flowers. Having at least 2 plants blooming each season will create the perfect bee paradise. Spring bloomers include Crocus, Bluebell, Dicentra, and Dandelion. Thyme, Cat Mint, and Sweet pea bloom in early summer, while Ivy, Honeysuckle, and Echinacea bloom in late summer. These flowers are all rich in pollen and nectar.
  5. Provide a water source. Water is just as important for bees as pollen and nectar. It is a vital ingredient in the production of honey within the hive. It also helps to keep the colony cool. All you need is a shallow dish, a small plant pot, and a few stones. Place a few stones in a glass or ceramic dish and add just enough water that the tops of the stones are exposed. Turn a plant pot upside down and set your dish on the top. Ensure you construct your bee bath in a shaded area and change the water daily.

Bees may seem small, insignificant annoyances but they are vital to the production of so many products that we use every day. From food to medicine, construction to textiles, we would be lost without our bees.

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