Introducing Dr. Karin Alton, a distinguished nature enthusiast and seasoned researcher with a BSc (Hons) in Zoology and a PhD in Entomology from the University of Nottingham. Over the past 14 years at the University of Sussex, she has specialized in pollinator research, particularly focusing on honey bees.
Driven by a concern for the growing societal disconnect from nature, Dr. Alton sought to bridge this gap during the Covid pandemic. She is now a qualified Forest Bathing Guide, trained by The Forest Bathing+ Institute. With a mission to enhance wellbeing through nature, Dr. Alton invites you to explore new connections at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wildlife: A Fragile State of Being
It should come as no surprise that in the last 100 years or more, the way we have managed our landscapes across the globe has altered them significantly, and whilst human populations have soared, many other species have been less fortunate. Three of the most critical factors impacting the environment are agricultural intensification, land conversion, and urban development. The recent State of Nature Report 2023, complied by over 60 conservation organisations, is a comprehensive document bringing together detailed data from biological monitoring and recording schemes across the United Kingdom, its Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories. This is just one of the many reports highlighting the global decline in wildlife species, and it suggests that almost one in six of the 10,000 species that have been monitored since 1970 are at risk of extinction in Great Britain. Across all wildlife species there is, on average, a decline of 19%, with more than half of all flowering plant species (54%) having suffered a decrease in their habitat range. The European Eel (Anguilla anguilla), Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur) and Hazel Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius) are some of the most at-risk animal species.
To date, 75% of ice-free land and 63% of oceans have declined, and wetlands have suffered significant losses with 85% of these habitats destroyed globally due to human activity. Since the 1930s, 97% of the UK's wildflower meadows have been lost, making them one of the country’s rarest habitats. Ancient woodland, land which has been continuously wooded since the year 1600 in England and Wales, and since 1750 in Scotland, once covered most of the UK. Now it occupies only 2.5% of the land area. This woodland type is the most biodiverse habitat in the UK and is an important carbon sink. It is also home to many unique and rare species of flora and fauna, which are not found in any other type of woodland. The loss and degradation of these woodlands in the UK has become a pressing issue due to a range of compounding threats. Specifically, the construction of residential buildings, new roads, and railways has put over 1,225 ancient woods at risk. Biodiversity is diminishing at a faster rate than at any other time in human history.
In particular, the declining number of pollinators is a significant cause for concern due to their vital role in our ecosystem. In this online article, I will discuss how we can support pollinators and contribute to their preservation.
The consequences of a declining population of pollinators
Pollinators are crucial for the fertilisation of plants, and many of them have an important role in pollinating food crops that are consumed by humans and animals. It is estimated that up to 75% of all crop species benefit to some degree from animal pollination, which is essential for fruit or seed set and crop yield. According to the State of Nature Report, pollinators such as bees, hoverflies, butterflies and moths have decreased on average by 18%, whilst predatory insects, such as the 2-spot Ladybird (Adalia bipunctata) significant in crop pest control, have declined by more than a third (34%). To ensure the survival of these pollinators and other useful insects, our natural landscapes must thrive. Many flower-visiting insects such as honey bees (Apis mellifera) cannot successfully survive on mono-cultural crops alone; like us, they require a varied diet for optimum health.
Extreme weather events, such as flooding, heatwaves, droughts, and hurricanes, are becoming more frequent due to climate change. This rapid change in weather patterns may alter the timing of plant and pollinator interactions. Many plants and insects have evolved to have synchronous life cycles, with flowers blooming while pollinators are active. However, the changing climate may cause plants to flower earlier or later than usual, which can disrupt this synchronisation. Wildfires may destroy vast areas of wildlife-friendly habitats, such as grasslands or forests, affecting both nesting sites and food resources. Flooding too can have a devastating effect on pollinator populations. As rain patterns become more unpredictable and intense, the risk of nest destruction for ground-nesting wild bees rises. These bees construct their nests in underground burrows or tunnels, typically in soil or sandy areas. However, when heavy rains occur, their nests can be flooded and the developing young be destroyed, leading to a decline in bee populations.
How can we improve the situation for pollinators?
Helpfully, there are various schemes across Europe to aid biodiversity in agricultural areas, such as the Environment Land Management Scheme (ELMS) in the UK and the Landbrugstilskud in Denmark. These initiatives encourage farmers, through financial incentives, to farm in a way that is more sympathetic to wildlife. Farmers can use best practices when creating, managing and improving habitats, with strategies such as restoring meadows, planting and maintaining hedgerows, creating ponds, and providing forage and nectar-rich crops. These can all contribute to a better future for flower-visitors, safeguard our food supply, protect biodiversity, and ensure the long-term sustainability of our planet.
Of course, it isn’t just sustainable agricultural practices that improve the conditions for beneficial insects. One obvious way we can all help to counteract this decline is simply to make more flowers available. People can be encouraged to grow flowers in their gardens, balconies or window boxes. It's a great and simple way to engage with nature whilst supporting pollinators and other wildlife. Organisations may also consider ways to help; that could be something as simple as making their office gardens more biodiversity-friendly or helping to fund research and conservation projects. For instance, the French conservation charity, Noé, sowed more than 900 hectares of flower meadows in one year to encourage the return of pollinating insects. This could be done through a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) scheme or by teaming up with a charity to help support a conservation project e.g. The Lepton Foundation’s Bee Camino* or the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s Bee Connected. Companies should also think about how their products and supply chain are impacting flower-visitor populations, and if possible, support habitat restoration projects to offset their impact.
Understanding the needs of pollinators
To support pollinators effectively, it is crucial to understand their needs and create suitable habitats and resources that provide diverse and abundant sources of food. This can be achieved by planting a variety of flowering plants that bloom at different times of the year. Native plants are particularly beneficial as they have evolved to attract local flower-visitors.
However, exotic garden plants can substitute for native plants if they become seasonally rare and food resources are scarce.
Providing shelter is another key aspect of supporting beneficial insects. Much more research is necessary to fully understand the biology and life-history traits of ground-nesting bees, also known as mining bees. It is believed that around 75% of all wild bee species build their nests underground in burrows or tunnels. It is still unclear which interacting factors such as soil texture, compaction, moisture, ground surface features, or nearby floral resources influence the mining bee’s choice of nesting location. However, it is possible to encourage mining bees by creating earth banks or leaving bare areas of soil. To attract a variety of solitary bees, create sites in sunny locations on road verges, hedgerows, or gardens, preferably on slopes from vertical banks to flat ground.
Some species of solitary bees prefer to live in cavities. For example, Mason bees (Osmia sp.) use plant stems as nesting sites. Plants such as Hemp Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum) and Fennel (Ferula sp.), having hollow stems, would be beneficial in the surrounding environment. Providing and safeguarding dry stone walls in your area can also benefit bees that prefer cavities occurring naturally or sometimes created by beetles. Additionally, wooden blocks with different-sized holes both in length and diameter can be attached to existing fences, walls, or outbuildings to help bees that typically occupy wooden structures that have been bored by beetles. Leaving fallen logs and leaf litter undisturbed can also provide safe habitats for other pollinators such as bumblebees, hoverflies and beetles.
Bee hotels have gained increasing attention as a potential solution for creating habitats for bees, and they may provide additional nesting sites for solitary bees. These structures mimic the natural cavities that bees usually inhabit such as hollow plant stems or holes in trees. However, more research and analysis of best practices are required to explore whether these structures are truly beneficial for solitary bees. For instance, the cavity spaces are often not of sufficient length or diameter. Researchers found that artificial nest tubes/cavities of 8-10mm internal diameter and a length of at least 150mm were optimal for rearing Osmia bicornis. Furthermore, regular inspection and cleaning of the hotel is required to prevent the build-up of pests or diseases that may harm bees. Often the bee hotel may be
too big, with too many cavities situated close together, making the hotel more easily detected by parasitic wasps. However, providing a variety of nesting materials and hole sizes within the hotel can accommodate different species' preferences. Bee and insect hotels can be excellent educational tools and appeal to many who want to start out helping bees and other insects, but bees are best served by providing more flowers in the local environment.
Creating a pollinator-friendly environment
Creating appropriate habitats is crucial for the survival and well-being of our pollinators. A very simple but key approach to achieving this is by offering a plethora of flowering plants all year round. This involves prioritising the conservation and introduction of a diverse range of plant species that can provide bees with the nutrients they need to thrive throughout their active foraging season. Flowers offer both nutrient-filled pollen and sugary nectar, serving as an important food source for many insects. To support the wellbeing of bees at both individual and population levels, it is essential to manage ecosystems in a way that takes into account their natural nutritional preferences. That way we can help maintain healthy and resilient bee populations that are better equipped to withstand environmental pressures and other threats.
When planning your garden or outdoor space, it's important to consider the layout and design. To achieve a diverse range of flowers with different shapes and colours, it's necessary to rely on natural concepts in design and maintenance. Even small green patches can be utilised effectively. Creating clusters of plants together can draw more pollinators, as they may be attracted to forage in areas with higher plant density. The availability of water is crucial to all living organisms, and pollinators are no exception. Access to water bodies such as ponds is essential; for instance, water is used by honey bees not only when they are thirsty, but also to dilute honey for feeding the young bees and to cool the nest on hot days.
It is also essential to minimise pesticide use in your green space. Pesticides can be harmful to flower-visiting insects and disrupt their delicate ecosystems. Instead, explore organic and natural alternatives or adopt integrated pest management techniques to control pests without compromising the health of our pollinator friends.
Supporting local conservation initiatives
Supporting local conservation efforts is another impactful way to help flower-visiting insects. Various organisations, such as the Pollinator Partnership and other initiatives, are committed to conserving and safeguarding pollinator populations. One way to support conservation in your neighbourhood is by participating in citizen science projects. These projects allow you to contribute valuable data by monitoring and reporting insect activity in your area. Your observations can help scientists better understand pollinator behaviour and population trends, ultimately aiding in their conservation efforts. You can also support local conservation organisations financially or through volunteering. These organisations often work on initiatives such as creating wildlife-friendly habitats, educating communities about the importance of pollinators, and advocating for government policies that protect them. By supporting these initiatives, you are directly contributing to the well-being and preservation of beneficial insects in your area.
Educating others about the importance of pollinators
Another way to help flower-visiting insects is by educating others about their importance. Many people may not be aware of the crucial role that pollinators play in our ecosystem. By spreading awareness and knowledge, we can inspire others to take action and support pollinator conservation efforts. Sharing information on social media or in personal conversations is an effective way to educate others. You may like to share accurate and reliable information about pollinators, including facts, statistics, and interesting articles that highlight their significance, and encourage your friends, family, and colleagues to learn more and get involved.
Additionally, consider organising educational events in your community. This could include workshops, presentations, or even nature walks where you can share your knowledge with others. By providing accessible and engaging opportunities for people to learn about flower-visiting insects, you can inspire them to join the cause and make a difference. Community orchards growing local heritage fruit varieties and culinary herb gardens containing lavender (Lavandula), Sage (Salvia), Marjoram (Origanum), Mint (Mentha), Thyme (Thymus), and
Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus) are both great ways to involve the community and feed both pollinators and people.
Collaboration and partnerships can make a difference.
While individual actions can make a significant impact, collaborating with like-minded organisations and forming partnerships can further amplify the efforts to help flower-visitors. One way to foster collaboration is by reaching out to local environmental groups, gardening associations, and government agencies that focus on pollinator preservation. By joining forces, we can pool our knowledge, share best practices, and support each other's initiatives. Together, we can advocate for policies that protect beneficial insects and their habitats, as well as secure funding for conservation projects.
Collaborating with businesses and corporations that share an interest in pollinators is another effective way to make a positive impact. More companies are now recognising the significance of sustainable practices and conservation efforts. By working together with these organisations, we can develop inventive solutions and raise public awareness about the challenges facing flower-visiting insects.
Moreover, collaboration has the potential to transcend geographical limits. Although one should be mindful of ‘greenwashing’ - deceptive marketing which makes the public believe that a company or organisation is environmentally friendly - networking with national and global entities committed to preserving pollinators and sharing insights on a worldwide level can be extremely beneficial. By exchanging triumphs and lessons learned from obstacles, we can forge a path towards more efficient tactics aimed at safeguarding insects across the globe.
Conclusion: A collective effort for a better future for pollinators
To sum up, the preservation of pollinators necessitates a collaborative approach from individuals, communities, and organisations. We urgently need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote sustainable farming practices, and create wildlife-friendly habitats.
We must continue to promote awareness and educate others about the significance of beneficial insects. Furthermore, supporting local conservation initiatives and dedicating our time not only helps to revive and safeguard pollinator habitats but also cultivates a sense of community and a vital connection with nature. By working in unison, we can create a more pollinator-friendly world, guaranteeing the survival and prosperity of these crucial species for generations to come.
*Bee Camino is a joint project by MonAsia Association and Lepton Charity Foundation, with the moral support of Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation.
Dr Karin ALTON