Urgent need to classify, monitor and protect declining pollinators, report concludes

Issue date: 26 October 2020


A report by the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) is warning that more and better monitoring of declining pollinating species is required by both citizens and scientists to build better protection around the many pollinator species at risk. UWE Bristol’s report warns that failing to protect them now could create a domino effect within ecosystems – possibly resulting in fewer plants to feed other animals and lead to a subsequent loss of animals throughout the food chain.

The report, produced for the European Commission and published by environmental information service Science for Environment Policy, paints a picture of the variety and extent of pollinators such as bees and other insect and animal species in Europe and its overseas territories, as they carry pollen from one plant to another.

Flies, butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles, birds, bats and lizards, as well as bee species all help boost the yield and quality of crops such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and oils. Animal-pollinated crops supply essential nutrients for human diets and can even help prevent serious diseases, including cancer. Three quarters of the world’s main crops are to some extent reliant on pollination from animals.

However, the report highlights that we are witnessing widespread decline of these pollinator species. Insect pollinators support genetic diversity and resilience in plants and their loss could therefore have a catastrophic domino effect within ecosystems. The loss of pollinator-dependent plants could also reduce ecosystems’ ability to store carbon and protect against floods – key benefits for humans.

The main causes of this decline are human, the report finds, and these include land use change, land management techniques, climate change, invasive species, pollution and diseases.

The report recommends an urgent need for more monitoring of pollinator species, through systematic censuses to provide robust data on their population numbers and impact. This needs to be done across different habitats and geographic regions, and repeated over time to help reveal the causes and effects of their decline or recovery, it concludes.

One barrier to this monitoring is the decline in recent decades of taxonomy – the classification of species – as a scientific discipline. Further support and investment in personnel, training and expertise is therefore needed.

Professor Jim Longhurst, UWE Bristol’s Assistant Vice Chancellor for Environment and Sustainability, said: “This is an important piece of work that underscores the urgent measures needed to halt the rapid decline of wild pollinators throughout Europe. Land use has the greatest impact on pollinator numbers and diversity, which is why it is so crucial to provide more habitat”.

“Training up more people to identify and monitor insects is also a crucial step to understand the drivers of pollinator population change, which will point to further solutions”.

The report also highlights the potential of citizen science. Large, voluntary groups of amateur ecologists and scientists can enable far more data to be collected than would otherwise be possible within available budgets. Volunteer expert naturalists can also provide valuable taxonomic expertise. Increasing use of technologies such as DNA barcoding and application of AI could also serve as useful tools to support monitoring activities.

Bristol is taking steps towards protecting nature, and last month launched the One City Ecological Emergency Strategy, which recognises the urgency of making more space for nature and reducing pesticide use by 2030.

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