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Cities could help save declining insect populations

A wasp feeding on a figwort flower

A wasp feeding on a figwort flower

Press release issued: 22 June 2010

The lure of urban habitats for bees, flies, beetles and butterflies is to be investigated by researchers hoping to find a solution to the declining numbers of insect pollinators, without which, the UK could face severe agricultural setbacks.

Environmental changes, pests and diseases have all led to a shrinking population of pollinating insects in recent years, yet strategies based on scientific evidence to prevent further losses have so far been lacking.  Now, as part of a UK-wide initiative involving academic researchers in ecology, Wildlife Trust and Local Authority conservationists and researchers in ecology, molecular biology, mathematics and computing, the University of Bristol is to explore how urban environments could help to restore insect populations.

Insects are responsible for maintaining natural biodiversity and ecosystems, with 80% of British plant species dependent on insect pollination.  Insects pollinate around a third of the agricultural crops grown globally.  In the UK alone the total loss of insect pollinators could cost up to £440m per year (about 13% of the UK’s income from farming). 

Professor Jane Memmott from Bristol university’s School of Biological Sciences and an expert in ecological processes will lead a multidisciplinary team of academics and practitioners from four cities to identify hotspots of urban growth and how these might be turned into thriving habitats for pollinating insects.

Working with local practitioners and enlisting the help of schools and residents from Bristol, Edinburgh, Leeds and Reading, Prof Memmott hopes the project will inspire more people to get involved and ensure the project’s long-term success: “The idea is to do some absolutely excellent science but also to make a real difference, to have a long term sustainable impact.  Bringing local conservation practitioners on board from the very beginning has been a really important step, because they have the knowledge that can make it happen.”

Prof Memmott’s project will span three and a half years.  The first year will identify where pollinator biodiversity is strongest in the UK, comparing cities, farms and nature reserves.  The second year will concentrate on each of the four cities, providing scientific data about the hotbed of pollinator activity known anecdotally to exist in, for example, schools, industrial sites, gardens and wasteland.  A team of researchers will look at whole communities of bees, flies, butterflies and beetles that visit flowers, constructing food webs that describe the patterns of flower-insect interactions. 

A series of mathematical models will then be drawn up which will spatially map the activity and which can then be practically applied to create a host of habitats, called “pollinator margins”, locally adapted to each city.  These will act as test beds to assess whether the environments identified as most beneficial do actually encourage the most pollinating activity.

Prof Memmott plans to enlist the help of schools and local people from each city through a series of interactive experiments that will demonstrate just how pollination works, by observing bumblebee colonies, for instance:  “These people will be our local ambassadors and maybe by inspiring more people to get involved with the Wildlife Trust, for example, we can ensure the project’s longevity.”

At the end of the project the findings will be presented at a conference for practitioners and academics alike, providing evidence-based data for policy makers, farmers, growers and producers about the causes and consequences of threats to insect pollinators.  The data should ultimately inform strategies to protect the pollination of both agricultural and horticultural crops and wild flowers.

The University of Bristol project is part of the £10 million Insect Pollinators Initiative, jointly funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC); the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; the Natural Environment Research Council, the Scottish Government and the Wellcome Trust, and is funded under the auspices of the Living with Environmental Change partnership.

Further information

Please contact Aliya Mughal for further information.
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