You are saving our wild bees - the unsung heroes of our countryside

Louise Payton - 05 March 2014


Credit: Elliott Neep

It has been all over the news - the dramatic decline in our bees. The most attention has been centred on our honeybees, and they are indeed faring badly with a third of bee colonies lost by British beekeepers last winter (2012/2013). But our wild bees are in deep trouble too.

Last month they were described by scientists as the 'unsung heroes of our countryside' - UK farmers were found to be more reliant on these wild species for pollinating crops, than any other European Country (except oddly enough, Moldova).1 Our wild bees include the much loved yet humble bumblebee, of which sadly eight of our twenty five UK species are declining, with two already extinct.2

Then there are the 200 or so species of ‘solitary’ bees, which as the name suggests nest alone - but of which significant losses in species have occurred in half of the 10km squares sampled across the UK.3

The reason for their losses? Bees have been hit by a 'perfect storm' of problems.

It is fairly widely agreed that the loss of wildflowers due to agricultural intensification, is a major cause. Then there are the new and more virulent diseases, plus all this new extreme weather that we are having. And last but not least there is the pesticides and other chemicals that we spray on our countryside.

Whilst the government and biotech companies continue to argue about the effects of these, recent studies show that we may be underestimating their impact. Take strawberries, which are pollinated by bees. They get sprayed with around 27 different chemicals but safety testing only looks at each one independently4. In the same way that taking a mixture of prescribed medicines can be lethal, recent research suggest these chemical cocktails maybe contributing to bee deaths and making them more susceptible to bad weather and disease.5,6

But there is hope. There is a scientifically proven answer to saving our bees - farming organically.

A rigorous meta-analysis has found that organic farms have an incredible 50% more species of pollinators than non-organic farms.7 That is a hell of a lot more species - and includes many species of rare bees. Other studies show it's not just species diversity - it is population sizes too. One study for example found double the numbers of honeybees in organic versus non-organic wheat. These increases can probably be put down to more wildflowers, as discussed last week and the fact organic farms use zero synthetic pesticides - flower rich stewardship margins on non-organic farms have been found to have less bees than similar, synthetic pesticide free, margins on organic farms.

So this is to say a great big thank you for those supporting our work on organic farming and helping to bring more flowers and bees back into our countryside. If you want to be a Wildlife Warrior too, you can find out more here -

The value of bees to our economy and politicians

Even politicians, often seemingly uninterested in saving wildlife, are really concerned in the 'bee story' - why? Perhaps because bees are worth millions to our economy:

  • Without bees pollinating our crops, you wouldn’t have a third of the foods you eat
  • And it’s about energy too - although an unsustainable practice, farmers are requiring more and more bees to pollinate the dramatic increases in flowering oil seed rape used to make biodiesel, but also animal feeds and some foods
  • Researchers announced last month that there are already 7 billion too few honeybees in Europe to pollinate crops - that’s a shortage of around 13 million honeybee hives
  • But, excepting Moldova, it was British farmers who were found to be suffering the worst shortage in honeybees - we only have a quarter of the honey bees we need to pollinate our crops
  • This gap is currently being filled by wild pollinators - it is estimated that if they disappear, it would cost £1.8 billion a year to hand pollinate crops

For more information see the journal article or the Guardian.

Louise is Policy Officer for farming and land use at the Soil Association.


  1. Journal Article: Breeze et al (2014) ‘Agricultural Policies Exacerbate Honeybee Pollination Service Supply-Demand Mismatches Across Europe’  See media coverage of the research here in the Guardian
  2. Journal Article: Goulson, D.G. and Lye, B. D. (2012) ‘The decline and conservation of bumblebees’
  3. Journal Article: Biesmeijer, J.C., et al. (2006). Parallel declines in pollinators and insect-pollinated plants in Britain and the Netherlands. Science 313: 351-354
  4. Defra (2012). Pesticide Usage Survey Report 251, Soft Fruits in the United Kingdom 2012, National Statistics, D.G. Garthwaite, S. Hudson, I. Barker, G. Parrish, L. Smith & S. Pietravalle, Land Use & Sustainability Team Food & Environment Research Agency
  5. Pettis, J. S., Lichtenberg, E. M., Andree, M., Stitzinger, J., Rose, R. and vanEngelsdorp D. (2013) ‘Crop Pollination Exposes Honey Bees to Pesticides Which Alters Their Susceptibility to the Gut Pathogen Nosema ceranae’ PLOS ONE, 8 (7) 70182
  6. Zhu et al (2014) ‘Four Common Pesticides, Their Mixtures and a Formulation Solvent in the Hive Environment Have High Oral Toxicity to Honey Bee Larvae’ 
  7. See our press release here. Journal article: Tuck et al (2014) 'Land-use intensity and the effects of organic farming on biodiversity: a hierarchical meta-analysis'

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Wessex Bee Woman
13 March 2014 23:37

It would be good if we could disturb our colonies of bees less so as to reduce the likelihood that we allow viruses and mites to enter uninvited ! The top bar hive method leaves collection of honey until late spring as only takes it as superfluous to the bee's needs. A small viewing window can be added to hives but we shouldn't be taking the 'roof' off to examine our bees during the active season very much at all. Let us do our bit to support their lifestyles rather than bring threat to them by human intervention.

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