Find out what pollinators are, why they are important and why they are declining.
In recent years, beekeepers have reported colony losses, especially in Western EU countries such as France, Belgium, Germany, the UK, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. However, with many parts of the world, including the US, Russia and Brazil experiencing the same problem, it is clearly a global issue.
What are pollinators?
Few plants self-pollinate: the vast majority depend on animals, wind or water for reproduction. Besides bees and other insects, a wide range of different animals, from bats, birds and lizards visiting tropical flowers for nectar, to vertebrates such as monkeys, rodents or squirrels can be pollinators. With bee populations declining, farmers in some parts of the world, such as China, have begun to pollinate their orchards by hand.
Bees in Europe
In Europe, pollinators are mainly bees and hoverflies, but also butterflies, moths, some beetles and wasps. The domesticated western honeybee is the best-known species and is managed by beekeepers for honey production and other products. Europe also counts about 2,000 wild species.
The threat of pollinator extinction
The topic has attracted public attention, as bees and other insect pollinators are essential for our ecosystems and biodiversity. Fewer pollinators mean many plant species could decline or even disappear along with the organisms that directly or indirectly depend on them. In addition, the decline in numbers and diversity of pollinator populations affects food security with potential losses in agricultural yields.
To tackle the issue and complement efforts at EU and national levels, the European Commission presented in 2018 the EU Pollinators Initiative, the first comprehensive initiative at EU level, focusing on wild pollinating insects. Its aim is to improve knowledge about the decline, tackle the causes and raise awareness of the issue.
On 18 December 2019, MEPs adopted a resolution on the initiative asking for more targeted measures to protect wild pollinators. MEPs advocate further reduction of the use of pesticides and more funds for research.
Why are pollinators declining?
Currently, there is no scientific data giving the full picture, but there is evidence of a considerable decline in pollinators, due primarily to human activities. Bees and butterflies are the species for which the best data is available, demonstrating that one out of ten bee and butterfly species is threatened with extinction in Europe.
The decline does not have one single cause, but threats include land-use changes for agriculture or urbanisation, which result in the loss and degradation of natural habitats. In addition intensive agriculture leads to homogenous landscapes and the disappearance of diverse flora, reducing food and nesting resources.
Pesticides and other pollutants can also affect pollinators directly (insecticides and fungicides) and indirectly (herbicides), which is why Parliament is highlighting the need to reduce the use of pesticides.
Particularly dangerous for honeybees are invasive alien species such as the yellow-legged hornet (Vespa velutina) and diseases such as parasites. Another factor is the changing climate with rising temperatures and extreme weather events.
Economic impact of pollinators
In the EU 78% of wild flower species and 84% of crop species depend, at least partly, on insects to produce seeds. Pollination by insects or other animals also enables more variety and better quality of fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
According to estimates, about 5 to 8% of current global crop production is directly linked to pollination by animals.
Pollinators also contribute directly to medicines, biofuels, fibres and construction materials.